Profile September 2010

The News Merchant

Interested in booking Joran van der Sloot’s ex-girlfriend for the morning news? Want an exclusive? Got a little cash to spend? Larry Garrison’s the person to call, though most news networks won’t admit they call him. The inside story of how tabloid TV news is made, bought, and paid for—and its implications for the news industry and our society.
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Photo Illustration: Gluekit; Network photos: ABC, CNN, FOX, NBC; Photo of Larry Garrison: Courtesy Sean Garrison Photography

“I don’t think you should go with CNN,” Larry Garrison says into his cell phone as he paces across a hotel lobby near his home in Westlake Village, California. “I’d like to team up with you.” He’s talking to John Muldowney, a 78-year-old retired propane inspector from Manheim, Pennsylvania, who thinks that he and his wife might have found Natalee Holloway’s remains while snorkeling off the coast of Aruba. The story involves blood and tragedy, but also the opportunity to go on television, and Garrison, who has one of the most unusual—and controversial—jobs in the TV business, exists to make that happen. “I want to make sure you don’t have your day of glory and then everyone forgets about you,” Garrison continues, his eyes gleaming. “I’ll be there for you.”

There is no single term that fully captures what Garrison does for a living, although it involves a lot of time spent cajoling people over the phone. He’s sometimes called a fixer, a story broker, or—his preference—an independent television producer and consultant, but all the titles mean the same thing: Garrison gets paid to bring tabloid stories to TV news programs. Missing toddlers, murdered coeds, septuplets, serial killers—an endless parade of freaks and victims is marched through the studio sets of Dateline NBC, 20/20, Good Morning America, Inside Edition, and countless other shows, all to satisfy viewers’ seemingly insatiable appetite for real-life tears and melodrama. Sometimes network bookers go out hunting for subjects themselves, armed with bouquets of flowers and boxes of tissues and the names of their star anchors (Diane Sawyer, Matt Lauer) as chits. In many cases, though, Garrison gets there first, locks up the rights to the person’s story, and becomes an unavoidable middleman in whatever transactions follow.

In addition to feeding what Garrison likes to call “Oh my God” stories to news networks, people like him serve another purpose: they make it easy for mainstream media outlets to pay for interviews while obscuring the fact that they do. The agent delivers the interview, and in return the network makes him a paid producer or consultant for that particular program; what he then does with the money—keep it or share it—is his own business. (For his part, Garrison tends to keep the whole fee, while sometimes promising to try to secure a book or movie deal for the grieving mother or accused murderer’s ex-girlfriend he is representing.) If the person has a diary or photo album to sell for on-air use, Garrison can help with that, too.

Garrison has been in the business in one form or another for decades, handling media, book, and movie deals for a host of people on the margins of dark celebrity: jurors in the Michael Jackson child-molestation case; a friend of Robert Blake’s dead wife; John Mark Karr, who falsely confessed to killing JonBenet Ramsey. But he made his name working on the story of Holloway—the 18-year-old Birmingham, Alabama, blonde who went missing during a high-school class trip to Aruba in 2005, and became the apotheosis of a golden age of dead-white-girl television. Garrison teamed up with Natalee’s father, Dave Holloway, negotiating his TV appearances, speaking on his behalf, and co-authoring a best-selling book called Aruba: The Tragic Untold Story of Natalee Holloway and Corruption in Paradise.

Five years later, the Holloway story continues to be a source of fascination, and Garrison is eager to persuade John Muldowney to work with him. Like sharks on the scent of anchovies, Nancy Grace and Fox News have also come calling, looking for airtime with the elderly couple who might have inadvertently discovered Holloway’s final resting place during their Royal Caribbean cruise vacation. “I did the news on this for five years, I wrote the book,” Garrison tells Muldowney. “I have people in Aruba who can look for the body. You didn’t give out the location, did you?” Pause. “I can put in a call to Dave Holloway.” A man passing by turns to stare. Garrison has electric-white teeth, a deep tan, and carefully styled brown hair. With his Prada sunglasses and silver neck chain, he looks like some former Hollywood player you should possibly recognize but don’t. The matching car, a white Mercedes convertible with leather seats and vanity plates (MOVIE TV), sits out front.

Garrison has not yet secured Muldowney as a client; the conversation is aimed first at assessing his credibility—all sorts of attention-seeking cranks, faux psychics, and nut jobs have claimed to have solved Natalee’s murder—and then at convincing Muldowney that he should trust him. Garrison’s trying to get answers to a few questions that might illuminate the couple’s motives: why did they wait six months before coming forward with their discovery? Have they notified the FBI about the underwater picture they took, so that it can investigate? Is their story marred by inconsistencies? While Garrison tries to figure out the truth, he continues with a gentle, but insistent, sell.

He tells Muldowney that he will look out for his interests and protect him from the rapacious tendencies of the press. His advice is geared toward maximizing the potential value of the story, including news, future book deals, movies, and television specials. Muldowney has already agreed to an interview with CNN the following day, which Garrison thinks is a mistake, and to an appearance on Nancy Grace, a show whose host Garrison says he finds too “sensationalist” to deal with. (“Until the day I die, I will never do Nancy Grace,” he repeatedly tells me.) After he hangs up the phone, Garrison puts in a call to a producer at ABC’s Good Morning America to see if he can goose any interest; he thinks that a sit-down interview on a network talk show would be more valuable—“classier”—than a three-minute sound bite on a cable program. He leaves the producer a message. The alleged skeleton is probably a piece of coral, or even a hoax, but the small possibility that the Muldowneys have actually found Holloway’s remains could translate into big dollars, and Garrison wants to be a part of the deal.

“In my gut intuition, I feel this may be it,” he tells me as we hop into the Mercedes and start speeding toward his house. “God works in funny ways.”

Tabloid television has been big business, of course, for well over a decade. Its rise was fueled by a number of factors, not least of which was the launch in 1980 of CNN, the first 24-hour news channel. The commodifying effect that cable had on TV, putting dozens or even hundreds of programs on equal footing, combined with sophisticated new methods of tracking viewers—allowing news producers to see, in real time, when people were tuning in, staying tuned, or clicking the remote to something else—led to a gradual reframing of the purpose that television news divisions could serve for their corporate owners. Earnest cost centers where scrappy reporters purported to do the Lord’s work gave way to slick operations, seen as sources of profit, whose anchors commanded massive salaries. Fox News Channel was launched in 1996, underscoring the fact that cable news—and even network news—was there to make money. It hardly mattered that everything broadcast on TV jumbled into one big spectacle, whether it was a celebrity murder trial or a presidential address.

Minute-by-minute competition among network newscasts and among news-magazine shows such as 60 Minutes and A Current Affair led to a sort of programming arms race, and an inexorable slide into the softer, more salacious—and more popular—“infotainment” that now fills prime-time hours. The murder trial of O. J. Simpson in 1995, the death of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey in 1996, and the story of a mother and two teenage girls murdered in Yosemite National Park in 1999 were all beamed into millions of American homes, and each set cable ratings on fire. By the end of the 1990s, sensational tabloid fodder had grown from obscure filler into a dominant, driving force in television news—and the networks found that there simply weren’t enough young, pretty, white crime victims to go around. Bidding for stories, once anathema, became commonplace.

All of the networks now dabble with payment in one form or another, according to Garrison and others who work in the industry, although some shows and networks have a reputation for being more aggressive than others. One former network-news booker told me how disheartening it became to work in such an environment. “There was an utter desperation to get first crack at a top-flight story, and this was the only way to do it,” he said. “Every time a big story broke, it would become a circus … Someone always came out of the woodwork with a deal.”

Not infrequently, Garrison has been that someone, though many TV news producers won’t acknowledge that they do business with him. I couldn’t find any who would comment on the record.

“It’s a very defined underworld of behavior that people really don’t talk about,” said the former booker. “All the networks have policies not to pay.” Indeed, most network news divisions are officially prohibited from paying sources for interviews, but they can get around that problem in any number of ways. In addition to paying a fee to a middleman, rather than to a subject, the network might conduct the interview in a lavish location, with all expenses paid and tickets to Broadway shows or Disney World thrown in. Or the network might pay for the use of a photo or video, with the interview coming along “for free.” Sometimes, a trashier evening tabloid show will license photos and get a coveted interview, and then both are recycled onto a more respectable morning or evening news program on the same network, which can broadcast them freely while leaving its own checkbook unsullied. In each instance, everyone knows what’s happening except the viewers.

“We don’t pay for interviews,” says ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider. “If someone has photographs or video that we want to license, we will license it, and we will disclose on the air that we have licensed pictures or videotape.” ABC’s disclosure policy is a recent development, put in place after one of the most stomach-turning examples of network payments came to light: ABC News paid $200,000 to the family of Casey Anthony, who is on trial in Florida for murdering her 2-year-old daughter, to license videos and pictures in 2008. (Garrison was working with the Anthonys early in the case, but he did not broker that payment.) This March, it was revealed that the family used the money to help pay for Anthony’s defense.

Other recent examples of the creeping influence of money in television news are plentiful. Last year on Christmas Day, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate explosives hidden in his underwear on a Northwest Airlines flight en route to Detroit from Amsterdam, and was tackled by a group of passengers who managed to thwart the attack. Upon arriving in Miami, a Dutch passenger named Jasper Schuringa clumsily tried to auction off to media outlets a fuzzy cell-phone photo he had taken of the hijacker. It worked: in the end, he reportedly received some $18,000 for the image from CNN, ABC, and the New York Post. Coincidentally, Schuringa sat for an interview with both television networks.

Around the same time, a New Jersey resident named David Goldman was fighting to bring his 9-year-old son, Sean, back from Brazil, where the boy had been living with relatives of his recently deceased mother, who were fighting Goldman for custody. Every network was salivating for an interview with Goldman; NBC won out by chartering a plane to carry him, young Sean, and an NBC correspondent named Jeff Rossen back to the United States, where the father and son promptly appeared on NBC’s Today show and a two-hour Dateline special.

Sometimes Garrison is involved in these kinds of negotiations, and sometimes he isn’t. But no matter what the networks might argue, he says, “they all pay.”

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Sheelah Kolhatkar is the features editor at Bloomberg Businessweek.

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