This article first appeared in GW Today.
Ted Turner, media pioneer, conservationist, and philanthropist, has the audacious mission to “save everything,” as he likes to say, because he believes to save the planet, all the species that live on Earth must be saved. On Tuesday evening, George Washington University held an event to pay tribute to Turner and commit to joining his mission to save everything.
The university officially welcomed John Sutter as the School of Media and Public Affairs Ted Turner Visiting Professor of Environmental Media, the first person to hold the endowed position that ensures the next generation of leaders from SMPA can use storytelling to rise to the critical challenge of saving the planet.
The event, held at the Jack Morton Auditorium, began with a video tribute to Turner in which those who knew him described him as a bold, audacious man who changed the world. Throughout his career, Turner gained recognition for his entrepreneurial acumen, sharp business skills, a vision that transformed television and his unprecedented philanthropy.
Frank Sesno, who spent 21 years at CNN as an anchor, White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief and is now director of strategic initiatives for SMPA, hosted the event. Sesno, who is also the founding director of Planet Forward, originated the idea of the Ted Turner Visiting Professor of Environmental Media position.
“This is the culmination of a dream to honor Ted, to share his audacious spirit, to teach future storytellers at this powerhouse of a university forever in Ted’s name,” Sesno said. “This is the perfect place to honor Ted. It's the perfect place to inspire other young, fearless, global citizens to tell stories that inform, engage, connect, motivate and inspire action on behalf of this planet.”
GW President Mark S. Wrighton said the university shares Turner’s vision to save the planet.
“The George Washington University is committed to preparing the next generation of leaders to solve the world’s most challenging problems. This, of course, includes the climate crisis. It is an urgent calling for many of our students. So tonight, we expand on the university’s commitment to sustainability by building on our strengths,” Wrighton said.
Wolf Blitzer, Hon. Doc. ’07, and anchor of "The Situation Room" on CNN, took the stage to share the impact Turner’s vision has had on the media landscape.
“It was remarkable that not only did he want a 24/7 cable news network to operate here in the United States, but he was also determined that it would operate all over the world,” Blitzer said. “He deserves so much credit for changing the world and for making it a better place.”
Blitzer invited CNN's chief international anchor Christiane Amanpour, president and CEO of Hallmark Media Wonya Lucas and the former president and CEO of the United Nations Foundation Kathy Calvin to share their thoughts on Turner’s global impact.
Speaking about Turner’s $1 billion donation to the United Nations in 1997, Calvin said the gift helped to change the world.
“Nobody had done a gift like that,” Calvin said. “He said at the time it was the best investment he ever made because it paved the way to global problem-solving. And that's exactly what happened. Companies, other wealthy investors, individuals, and nonprofits all joined together in the UN's life-changing, lifesaving work.”
Lucas spoke about how Turner has an amazing ability to recognize talent and give opportunities to deserving individuals.
In 1976, Turner bought the Atlanta Braves and promoted Lucas’s father, Bill Lucas, to general manager. The appointment made history as Bill Lucas was the first black man to hold that position in Major League Baseball.
“My dad didn't have a pathway to becoming the first black general manager in baseball until Ted saw him. And I mean, really saw him. He understood his intellect and spent time with him,” Lucas said. “[Turner] had this ability to recognize talent. So, the ability to understand the perceived smallest voice in the room can have the most powerful idea. That is Ted Turner.”
Amanpour echoed similar sentiments and described Turner as a visionary.
“He was absolutely the leader without whom none of this would have been possible. And he created a completely different framework with which the world could see each other and see itself,” Amanpour said.
CNN chair and CEO Chris Licht said CNN is determined to keep Turner’s vision alive by staying committed to telling important stories, including dedicating resources to cover climate change.
“We want to be true to Ted's vision,” Licht said. “It's tough for me to articulate the humbleness that I approach this job with and the fact that whoever sits in this chair should look at it as being a caretaker of that mission. The best tribute to what he created is to keep it strong and to keep it true to what he meant.”
Since the endowed position was announced in spring 2021, the Ted Turner Endowment has raised $3.2 million, spurred by a $500,000 gift from CNN, to establish the professorship and support events and activities around environmental journalism.
Toward the end of the evening, Christopher Alan Bracey, GW provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, introduced Sutter, the inaugural Ted Turner Visiting Professor of Environmental Media.
“I'm so honored by this,” Sutter said. “The students here (at GW) are bright, they're curious, and they're super passionate about these issues. I get an incredible amount of inspiration from the students here.”
The event ended with two of Turner’s children, Laura Turner Seydel and Robert “Teddy” Turner IV, reading out loud a letter sent by their father who couldn’t make it in person on Tuesday.
In the letter, Turner said he is humbled, honored and excited about the impact the endowed position will have going forward.
“When I think of the pivotal moments that changed my life for the better, they were often associated with cutting-edge stories and documentaries that help shine a light on issues in the world that humanity needed to understand,” the letter said. “That way, we can pivot with solutions as stewards and caretakers in the world. That's why this honor touches me so deeply. To all the future generations of storytellers committed to our planet's well-being: I believe in them. What a wonderful new era for the planet. Thank you again for this great honor.”
For more information or to contribute to the Ted Turner Professor of Environmental Media, please visit https://www.tedturnerfundgw.org/.