Ted Turner Says Anyone Can Help End Poverty

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In 1997, media mogul Ted Turner pledged up to $1 billion to the United Nations Foundation. Now, the man who created CNN and Turner Broadcasting System Inc., spends much of his time urging more people — wealthy or not — to get involved in global issues. Turner explains why he gave away so much money, why he chose the United Nations and whether or not it was worth it.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan. This week, we're in New York City for the 65th United Nations General Assembly.

We're going to spend much of this hour with Patti LuPone, talking about Broadway and her new memoir. But we begin with a man who gave a billion dollars to the U.N. Foundation in 1997. Ted Turner is known for building CNN and Turner Broadcasting Systems. He's known as a great sailor and former owner of the Atlanta Braves. Like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, he's promised to give away half of his vast wealth.

If you'd like to talk with Ted Turner about his role with the U.N. or his donation, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Drop us an email, And Ted Turner joins us now from an office at the Clinton Global Initiative here in New York City. Nice to have you with us today on TALK OF THE NATION. Ted Turner, are you there?

Mr. TED TURNER (Turner Broadcasting Systems): Yeah, I'm right here.

CONAN: Okay. A billion dollars is a lot of money. Thirteen years later, do you think you got your money's worth?

Mr. TURNER: Well, it's hard to tell exactly. It's gone into so many different projects, but and different aspects. But I'm very happy with it. Yes, I am.

CONAN: And you could have chosen to give it to one institution. You could have set up a foundation to target one particular issue that you were passionate about. Why did you decide to give it to the U.N.?

Mr. TURNER: Well, because the U.N. deals with all the problems that we have, from nuclear weapons and refugees and famine and all the other problems, and I figure we've got to handle all the problems if we're going to survive - global climate change.

CONAN: And this is you decided this was the best way, the broad-spectrum approach, if you will.

Mr. TURNER: Well, at the time, the United States was two years behind in their dues to the U.N. They owed them about a billion dollars, and my first idea was to give the money directly to the U.N. because they needed the money. They couldn't pay their peacekeepers because the U.S., who had agreed to pay, just wasnt paying.

CONAN: We just talked with Melinda Gates of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which obviously gives away a lot of money, too.

Mr. TURNER: Oh, yeah, much more than I.

CONAN: They obviously decided to do it a different way.

Mr. TURNER: Sure, well, that's okay. They decided to really emphasize children's health, and they've made a huge impact there, and I don't question that at all. I think, you know, it's their money. They can give it to whoever they want to.

CONAN: Now one of the messages you've been talking about is that you don't have to be a billionaire to be involved. But obviously, there are people with a great deal less in the way of means than you and the Gates family.

Mr. TURNER: Oh, you can do it by dedicating time to help a child who's an orphan and give him some adult supervision and friendship.

CONAN: What are you doing in New York this week?

Mr. TURNER: I'm here for a series of meetings related to most of which are related to the United Nations being here.

CONAN: Like what? I mean, I know you're involved with the U.N. Foundation, but what are you specifically talking about? What are you hoping to come away with the week? What would be a success for you?

Mr. TURNER: Well, a success for me just to see the world continue to make progress on the critical issues. The ones that concern me the most are getting rid of nuclear weapons and getting a handle on our energy policy and a strong climate change program.

But I'm interested in everything. I'm interested in hunger. A billion people go to bed hungry every night. That's intolerable. I'm on the committee to eliminate poverty or alleviate it, the Millennium Development Goals, and so I'm involved with it from a lot of different angles.

CONAN: We hear some rosy projections about meeting the Millennium Development Goals, particularly in the reduction of poverty. Are you pretty sure that that goal is going to be met in another five years?

Mr. TURNER: I'm not sure, of course not. But it's nice to see that there are a lot of people that are concerned about it. And if we want to stop the terrorism in the world, the best way to do is to make everybody prosperous, because you very seldom see a prosperous terrorist.

CONAN: We're talking with media mogul and philanthropist Ted Turner, 800-989-8255. Email us, Bill's(ph) on the line calling from Reno.

BILL (Caller): Hey, how are you guys doing?

CONAN: Pretty good.

BILL: So my question is: When money is donated or given to organizations like this or any organizations, it seems to me that far too much money goes to executive costs and not for the people who actually need it. And what does how does...

Mr. TURNER: That's a very good point. But we administer ourselves at the United Nations Foundation, and our overhead is low compared to most foundations our size.

BILL: Okay.

CONAN: So you have accounting procedures to make sure that money is not squandered?

Mr. TURNER: Absolutely, and we have a board of directors and a finance committee, absolutely.

BILL: And as a percentage, how much money actually goes towards helping people and not paying salaries?

Mr. TURNER: Oh, hell, I don't know. I can't give that to you exactly.

BILL: Gotcha. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Bill. Let's see if we can go next, this is Eric(ph). Eric's with us from Ann Arbor.

ERIC (Caller): Yes, hello.


ERIC: I have heard other interviews with authors, investigative journalist authors such as John Cooley of the Christian Science Monitor, who authored "Unholy Wars," Robert Dreyfuss "Devil's Game," and Robert Labeviere(ph), "Dollars for Terror."

And what they all cite is that the United Nations, when they engage in these so-called peace, what do they call them, peacekeeping operations, somehow they're actually aiding and abetting an overthrow of a duly elected, honorable leader. And what is installed is something like the CIA has always historically been involved with, like, the Shah of Iran and...

CONAN: I'm not sure the U.N. had any role in the 1953 overthrow.

ERIC: Well, what I'd like to ask Ted Turner is, with all of his billion dollars, how does he know that that money didn't actually go into nefarious activities that the United Nations seems to be inextricably involved with, according to people even from the American free press newspaper?

Mr. TURNER: Well, you know, I've worked with the United Nations almost every day in some way or another, and I don't see that at all. I think that they're aboveboard and up and up. And, you know, there was a little problem with, in the Oil for Food Program, a couple - well, four, five years ago. But that's the only impropriety that I'm aware of in a number of years.

The guys and girls that work over at the U.N. are really, for the most part, really care about what they're doing, and they really work hard for their money.

CONAN: I know in the Oil for Food Program, of course in Iraq during Saddam Hussein's rule, between the First Gulf War and the Second Gulf War, basically.

But How do you account for the great skepticism that so many Americans seem to have about the United Nations?

Mr. TURNER: That's one reason that I did - came out and worked with the United Nations, to try I don't think it's as bad as it was 10 years ago when we weren't paying our dues. But the American people have demanded that Congress pay their dues anyway.

So, you know, it we're, you know, we have a long background of being an isolationist country and standing on our own and staying out of - or trying to stay out of the wars in the rest of the world, which I think was good when we were a small country.

But we're a superpower now, and we have to take our responsibility in the world, seriously, because if we don't do it, nobody else can.

CONAN: There is, of course, some legitimate criticism of the United Nations, as well, that it's a bureaucracy, and like a lot of bureaucracies, it tends to get...

Mr. TURNER: Oh, so is the federal government, but you've got to have it. But where would we be without a federal government or without state government? And what the United Nations is, is our international government that deals with the things we can deal with as a nation-state, like the oceans and the atmosphere, things that are too big for one country to handle.

CONAN: Let's get a call in from Larry(ph), Larry with us from Tallahassee.

LARRY (Caller): Yes, and Ted, it's a real honor to speak to you. I'm actually right now driving down I-19, not too far from Avalon, and we'd love to see you down here at a Rotary Meeting sometime.

Mr. TURNER: I'll do it.

LARRY: My question to you, directly, is: How do we encourage more participation at the executive level to get involved in philanthropic causes that don't necessarily feather their own nest?

Mr. TURNER: Well, I think we're doing it. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, with their new program of getting everyone to pledge to give away half of their money, there's a philanthropy is at an all-time high in the United States. I think we're doing a pretty good job.

CONAN: Larry, thanks very much for the call. Please drive carefully.

LARRY: Thank you.

CONAN: All right, bye-bye. And we think of the United Nations General Assembly. We're going to be hearing a lot about nuclear weapons and hearing a lot about peacekeeping troops, tension points in the world.

But I know you're having an event tomorrow, Ted Turner, with the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, to talk about something that people might find a little puzzling: cook stoves.

Mr. TURNER: I'm sorry?

CONAN: You're going to be talking tomorrow, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, about new cook stoves.

Mr. TURNER: Right, we are. The cook stoves that are being used that have fossil fuel as the heating element, when they're used indoors, as they are in many places, poison the air just like they do poison the air, the atmosphere.

And then we're going to try to get cleaner cook stoves in the developing world that won't kill and harm the people that are cooking dinner.

CONAN: So this is one of those relatively low-technology improvements like malarial...

Mr. TURNER: That's right. Twice as many people die, in the world every year, from cook-stove pollution as they do from malaria.

CONAN: And malaria netting has also been, again, relatively inexpensive and relatively very effective.

Mr. TURNER: Absolutely. It's just been a great development.

CONAN: And how many cook stoves do you hope to get out into the world next year, new ones?

Mr. TURNER: As many as we can.

CONAN: Well, Ted Turner, thank you very much for being with us today, and we wish you the best of luck.

Mr. TURNER: Okay, well, thanks a lot.

CONAN: Ted Turner, chairman and founder of the United Nations Foundation. His book is titled "Call Me Ted," and he joined us today by phone from the Clinton Global Initiative here in New York City.

Coming up next, we'll talk with the great Patti LuPone about her decades as a Broadway star and about her new memoir. We want to hear from actors today. We want to hear from you about where you learned your craft. She writes a lot about that in her new book.

So give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email is Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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