CNN Gift Propels Environmental Media Initiative

A $500,000 CNN gift will help achieve the goal of creating a Ted Turner Professor of Environmental Media at SMPA and support GW’s focus on sustainability.

May 2, 2021

Sesno & Turner

CNN founder Ted Turner (right) with SMPA Director of Strategic Initiatives Frank Sesno

In revolutionizing television news, Cable News Network (CNN) founder Ted Turner earned a reputation as a pioneer in global media and journalism. And as a philanthropist, he focused the world’s attention on environmental threats like climate change.

“Ted brought an audacious entrepreneurial spirit to storytelling and global communication,” said Frank Sesno, director of strategic initiatives for the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs (SMPA). Mr. Sesno spent more than two decades working at CNN as a White House correspondent, anchor and Washington bureau chief.

Now, Mr. Sesno, SMPA and others are honoring Mr. Turner’s legacy through the Ted Turner Endowed Fund. The group has set a $6 million goal for a multi-faceted initiative to honor Mr. Turner’s legacy by establishing a GW professorship in his name and supporting events and activities around environmental journalism. Spurred by this $500,000 gift from CNN, the fund also will support activities that reflect Mr. Turner’s passion for environmental activism, such as a major annual event jointly hosted by SMPA and CNN focused on creative storytelling about the challenges confronting the planet.

“There could be no better way to honor Ted than by teaching and inspiring young people,” Mr. Sesno said. “This initiative will increase public understanding of environmental issues, create a permanent public presence highlighting Ted’s legacy, invest in journalism and benefit students for generations to come.”

To date, the fund has raised $2.5 million from more than 200 donors, including friends and colleagues of Mr. Turner such as WarnerMedia News & Sports Chair and CNN President Jeff Zucker; SMPA National Council members Char Beales, B.A. ’73; former Turner Broadcasting CEO Phil Kent; CNN Chief Political Correspondent Dana Bash, B.A. ’93; and Senior Vice President and Washington Bureau Chief Sam Feist. Other donors include high-profile journalists and media professionals such as Christiane Amanpour; Wolf Blitzer, Hon. Doctor of Humane Letters ’07; and Sanjay Gupta.

“The Ted Turner Endowed Fund is a textbook example of powerful positive change that is possible when private philanthropy partners with our renowned thought leaders,” said Donna Arbide, GW’s vice president of development and alumni relations. “This will accelerate and amplify the impact of the critically important work of our dedicated SMPA faculty, who are literally working with students to save our planet.”

In an interview with GW Today, Mr. Sesno and SMPA Director Silvio Waisbord discussed the origin of the fund and its impact on SMPA, GW students and the future of environmental journalism.

Q: Why did you choose to honor Ted Turner with a professorship in environmental media?

Sesno: The environment is one of Ted’s passion areas, and it has broad interest for our students. Obviously, the threats facing our planet have never been more urgent. Climate change, population growth and environmental equity issues all resonate deeply with this generation of students. So, our intention is to hire a journalist, a filmmaker or an author—someone who is active in the field—who will use this platform to make contributions to the world and teach future environmental storytellers at GW. The impact of this role really can’t be overstated. How we tell stories of the environment—how we inform, persuade, organize and mobilize—is going to be a long-lasting challenge and opportunity. This will allow the School of Media and Public Affairs at GW to have a significant voice in front of a major national and global audience, and for students to learn from someone who is experienced and dynamic.

Q: How does the endowment connect with other SMPA initiatives?

Sesno: It’s part of a cluster of activities that plug into other things we are doing at the university and with CNN. We have the opportunity to create a dynamic hub around sustainability communications that cuts across virtually every discipline at the university.

Q: So, what will this hub look like?

Sesno: The goal is that it will be composed of the following elements: the Ted Turner Professorship and a major event that will be held each year in Ted’s name. It’s the Planet Forward Project, which is a strong environmental sustainability communications initiative. It's coordination across Columbian College and its commitment to teaching and presenting activities around sustainability. It’s the sustainability minor at Columbian. It’s the addition of our National Geographic Visiting Professor of Science Communication Lisa Palmer. And it’s ultimately about showing students how to communicate clearly, how to frame a message and how to understand the media around them. That’s relevant to all GW students—whether they are in business and technology or science and engineering or policy and communication.

Q: What do you see as the long-term impact on SMPA and GW as a whole?

Waisbord: First, this project is a way of strengthening our position on sustainability studies and environmental studies. Second, it provides amazing opportunities for students to become more experienced and learn more about sustainability, media and communication. Third, communication is central to the way we define the challenges and the solutions around environmental issues. As a school, we are committed to the practice of communication and journalism at large. It’s the essential mission of the school. And, finally, this project is about building partnerships and deepening the relationships we already have with CNN and other major companies. I see it as building off and expanding the existing priorities of the school, the college and the university.