|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.”
At night I only watch Diane Sawyer. She’s the best,” Garrison says. He has strong opinions about TV people—the origins of which are sometimes highly personal. His antipathy toward Nancy Grace, for instance, seems to stem mostly from an incident in 2006 when he says Grace accused him, on air, of working toward a book and movie deal for John Mark Karr, the man who had confessed—falsely, it turned out—to the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. (Garrison was trying to arrange interviews for Karr at the time, but denies he was trying to sell a book.) Garrison was so angry that he pledged never to deal with Grace again.
He is hunkered down in the master bedroom of his one-story house, in a gated community full of mansions belonging to CEOs and Hollywood actors, about an hour west of Los Angeles. The place is overflowing with animals—a pair of Chihuahuas, parrots and mynah birds in elaborate cages, a battalion of desert tortoises in pens on the back terrace. In the corner where Garrison works are framed photographs of him with different celebrities—Sawyer, Larry King—as well as a picture of Ben Affleck holding the book Breaking Into Acting for Dummies, which Garrison wrote, drawing on his previous career as a Hollywood bit player.
Garrison has been working on the edges of the entertainment business since the late 1970s, when he left his job as a stockbroker. He studied acting with Lee Strasberg in New York and then moved to California, where he landed a series of small roles, including a part on the soap opera Santa Barbara and another in the movie Mulholland Falls.
One day, he says, he went to meet a producer who was “eating a pastrami sandwich with Thousand Island dressing dripping down his face,” and who talked on the phone throughout Garrison’s audition. This humiliation prompted him to move into producing. He acquired the rights to the inspirational life story of Tracy Taylor, a poster girl for the March of Dimes, which led to an article in People magazine and the development of his first movie project. (The movie was never made.) He tells me he did some work with Scott Brazil, a television producer known for shows such as Hill Street Blues, and with the Dick Clark Film Group. Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, Garrison came to specialize more and more in true stories, a relatively open field at the time, standing apart from the more glamorous scripted entertainment that had attracted him to the industry in the first place. After a divorce and a tumultuous period dating model types, he remarried in 2007. He is close with his three grown kids from his first marriage—one daughter is a makeup artist, another is a housewife, and his son is a photographer.
He fires up his computer and AOL bleats out, “You’ve got mail!” Garrison says that dozens of tipsters, some of whom he has on retainer, constantly bring him story ideas. But he also does a lot of scouring himself. In his 2006 autobiography, The Newsbreaker, he lists some keywords that signify a captivating subject: arson, fraud, murder, millionaires, slavery. The competition for anything truly dramatic is immediate and fierce; mainly, it comes from the news shows themselves, although a few other independent operators might be in the mix as well. Garrison moves in quickly on people who may still be reeling from a traumatic event. “I love the chase,” he writes: “finding the people, contacting them, and convincing them that I am the one they should entrust their information and rights to.”
His daily routine consists of scanning the wires, monitoring his Google alerts—on Natalee Holloway, other stories he’s working on, his own name—and watching a giant TV. At the moment, a group of talking heads on Fox News is analyzing the story of a 19-year-old boy named Colton Harris-Moore who went on a crime spree in Washington state and then disappeared into the woods. Garrison says that he isn’t going to pursue the story—“it would influence kids”—but if he did, he might call the kid’s mother: “I’d like to do a movie and a book entitled In the Middle of Nowhere,” he would tell her. “Or something glamorous. I’d lock up his rights, and when he’s caught, I’d own his rights and have his exclusive interview.”
Right now, Garrison is fretting about the Muldowneys, who haven’t called him back in the past couple of hours. When I ask him what he has to offer them, he says: “I could make sure that they’re not humiliated.” He goes on, “I feel this [might] keep awareness on this case, and also help promote the boycott of Aruba, because in my opinion, Aruba is corrupt. We gotta get to the truth, so that way justice will be served.” He pauses. “Now, if they don’t call me back and they decide to do their own thing, God bless them.”
He doesn’t stop trying, though. He dials up the Good Morning America producer again: “I wanted to know if you were interested in the couple that has the picture of Natalee Holloway,” he coos into her voice mail. “They’re supposed to do CNN tomorrow, but I can turn them for you if you’re interested.”
If Good Morning America calls him back, Garrison is confident he can persuade the Muldowneys to postpone their CNN and Nancy Grace commitments. If things worked out, he says, he could demand a fee—perhaps $2,500 or $5,000. Or, in this case, he might waive the fee. “I could say, ‘I want you to put them on and treat them right, and that’s it,’ because this might be the final chapter of my book and it may be worth it [for book-writing and -marketing purposes] just to lock them up and have the ability to say that I’m working with them.”
Garrison is coy about just how much money he makes each year, though he says he isn’t wealthy. He moved out of a more extravagant house a few years ago, when he says he decided to simplify his life. He also sold off his antique-car collection (car catalogues are still piled up on his desk). “In the old days,” he told me, networks “paid a lot more money for stories—they’d pay $100,000. Now they don’t [pay the really big bucks] unless it’s an ‘Oh my God’ story—like if I had Tiger Woods’s first interview.”
The Internet has commoditized some of what Garrison does, and competition has become more intense. Gossip sites such as TMZ and Radar Online provide a nonstop fix of tabloid titillation, while anyone with a valuable photograph or video can sell it easily and directly to a photo agency like Splash News. Then there’s the generally beleaguered state of the television-news business, where budgets have been slashed over the past couple of years. For those reasons, Garrison has turned increasingly toward longer-term book projects that he can develop out of his stories.
In any case, he tells me, the money isn’t so important. “I’m not a flashy person,” he says. “I’m proud of what I do. I’d like to believe that I make a difference.”
Is it really so bad that people get paid to be on news shows, or that people like Garrison broker the deals? The networks, after all, are making money off the stories through advertising revenue. Shouldn’t some of the people they’re profiting from—bewildered actors in real-life soap operas—expect to share in the spoils?
As to Garrison’s role, he does, arguably, provide a valuable service. Many of the people he deals with are unsophisticated; a middleman might help them negotiate a better deal for their story, and possibly manage their image and their prospects for a book or movie contract, in addition to reducing the media swarm. “I always say to people, next Christmas, you’re going to be sending me a Christmas card, where tomorrow that network show is gonna be gone. They’ll get their ratings. But I’ll always be there.”
One of Garrison’s clients, Sue Doman, expressed relief that she had Garrison standing between her and the reporters who were banging down her door. Doman’s sister was married to an Illinois police sergeant named Drew Peterson, who was charged with murdering her after he was named as a suspect in the disappearance of his fourth wife. Garrison has locked up Doman’s film, television, literary, and “life story” rights. If he successfully sells a book based on her story, he will take the entire advance, according to Doman. After the advance is paid back through book sales, she will receive one-third of the royalties, which she plans to donate to a domestic-violence shelter. “I trusted him to be able to control the media for me, so that’s why I did it,” she says. “I couldn’t ask for a better person.”
Still, the same lack of sophistication among news targets that makes brokers valuable to them also leaves them open to bad faith. And the whole practice of payment raises troubling questions. A long-standing tenet in journalistic circles holds that paying sources will corrupt them, that people should not be driven by money to talk, because cash undermines their credibility and might push them to say things that aren’t true. “It is entirely possible that if someone is being paid for a story, they will cater what they provide to make [the person paying them] happy,” says Andy Schotz, the Ethics Committee chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists. “It’s no longer about the pursuit of truth, it’s the pursuit of a financial arrangement.” Paying subjects also means that an individual might stage a stunt—the infamous “Balloon Boy” incident comes to mind—just to get attention or earn some money. And there’s always the potential that a murderer will be rewarded for his crime.
Garrison is still digging himself out of a reputational hole caused by one of the worst professional situations he has ever been involved in, which has made him especially sensitive about working with the wrong people. The Casey Anthony murder trial has turned into one of the most sensational media circuses of all time in a state—Florida—that is famous for them. The story has attracted all manner of bizarre parasites and hangers-on: agents, lawyers, representatives, and middlemen, who have attached themselves to the Anthony family in some form or another, hoping to gain notoriety or make a buck.
Garrison signed on as a “spokesperson” for Casey, 24, and her parents, George and Cindy Anthony, in late summer 2008, supposedly at no charge, during their search for 2-year-old Caylee Anthony. The entire family was under a cloud of suspicion—the press seemed convinced that Casey had murdered her daughter, and that her parents were helping to cover up the crime by launching a fake missing-person campaign. Protesters stationed themselves outside the Anthony house, and George and Cindy appeared on their front lawn, erratically gushing and ranting to reporters about the case, the police, the media. Garrison sensed the potential for a blockbuster book deal, and says that he believed the grandparents when they told him that they thought their granddaughter had been kidnapped. He did several television interviews on their behalf in which he urged people to search for the missing girl; he went on On the Record With Greta Van Susteren wearing a Help find Caylee Anthony T-shirt.
By October, Casey Anthony had been charged with murder, and Garrison’s relationship with her parents had degenerated. Garrison says he began to suspect that they weren’t being straightforward with him about the alleged crime, and he issued a press release in November 2008 saying he had quit working with them. On March 20, 2010, he issued another press release, titled “Setting the Record Straight on Caylee Anthony.” In it, he described a conversation he’d had with Cindy over the phone shortly before he stopped working with the couple. According to Garrison, Cindy confessed to having switched out Caylee’s hairbrush to confound police as they gathered evidence. Garrison says that he immediately reported this confession to the prosecuting attorney’s office.
“Cindy Anthony came to me with George and said, ‘My granddaughter was kidnapped, and I want people to keep looking for her, so if you help me to get the word out, I will do a book with you later on.’ And I said okay,” Garrison says. He adds: “That was the first time in my 25 years that anyone duped me.”
Some press accounts tell a different story. In October 2008, George and Cindy were flown to New York for an interview with NBC’s Today show. They taped an interview for Dateline that day as well. According to a report in the Orlando Sentinel, Garrison charged the network $6,500 for the Anthonys’ Dateline appearance, without telling the Anthonys about the payment. Their lawyer at the time, Mark NeJame, released a faxed bill from Garrison to a producer at NBC for the use of pictures, as evidence of the payment, and said that Garrison didn’t have any of the family’s pictures to sell.
The Anthonys were outraged when they found out that Garrison had been paid for their television appearance without their knowledge, and immediately fired him, according to people close to them. Garrison denies being fired, and says that he was not paid by any networks for interviews with the Anthonys, and that the Sentinel reporters who wrote about his fee from NBC were making the whole thing up; he also says the faxed bill was “fabricated.”
“I have seen some of the most wonderful acts of human kindness on this case, and some of the most despicable and sleaziest signs of human behavior as well,” says NeJame, who represented George and Cindy until he quit the case himself, in November 2008, because they were not following his advice. “I have rarely experienced anything like this, in my 30-year career, as far as the various people who attempted to exploit and prey upon this missing child.”
While the relationship between Garrison and the Anthonys was hurtling toward its bitter denouement, Casey Anthony’s defense lawyer, Jose Baez, was reportedly making his own deal with ABC, which is owned by the Walt Disney Company. 20/20 wanted to devote an episode to Casey, who was under investigation at the time but hadn’t yet been formally charged with murdering her little girl. Casey gathered some home videos of Caylee, and Baez flew to New York in August 2008 to meet with network representatives and offer the videos for licensing, according to someone involved in a similar negotiation at a competing network. The videos were aired during a 20/20 special that was broadcast on September 5, 2008, and on Good Morning America that morning, though Casey was not interviewed (she had been arrested for writing fraudulent checks on August 29, after Baez’s New York trip, and was still in custody). In March 2010, during a court hearing to determine whether Casey was indigent and incapable of paying for her own defense, Baez told the court that ABC News had paid Casey’s family $200,000, which had been used to pay his legal fees up to that point. It was revealed in separate court documents that ABC had also paid for George and Cindy to stay at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes Orlando Hotel for three nights that December.
Other people have also cashed in on the death of Caylee Anthony. A CBS affiliate in Orlando, WKMG, reported that a meter reader named Roy Kronk, who discovered Caylee’s decomposed body in the woods, was paid $20,000 by Good Morning America, supposedly for a picture of a snake he had snapped in the area; he also sat for an interview on the show. Another local TV channel, WFTV, reported that CBS News had paid the Anthony family $20,000 for photographs of Caylee and Casey.
Garrison insists that he’s never seen money, or its prospect, taint anyone he’s worked with. When I ask him why the television networks are so squeamish about admitting that money changes hands, he says, “If that [$200,000] is what’s paying for Casey Anthony’s defense right now, then shame on the person who paid it.” He says he draws his own line to determine whom he will represent and help enrich. Then he pauses and says, “You know, if I was to have made any money off of the Caylee Anthony case, it would have never gone to the grandparents or to Casey. It would have gone to me.”
“I believe, spiritually, what you put out comes back to you,” Garrison tells me one morning. Something similar might be said about what appears on television: what viewers watch, they will see more of. Everything that follows is entirely predictable. Judging from the ratings, as long as what is shown onscreen is entertaining, the people watching aren’t bothered by what may have gone into getting it there.
Garrison and I are sitting down to breakfast when his cell phone rings. He starts gesturing after he answers it. “It’s Dave Holloway,” he mouths to me. Holloway is apparently calling to ask about the skeleton photograph. “Something doesn’t seem right with these people. They’re doing Nancy Grace tonight,” Garrison says into the phone. “In my heart, Dave, I’m pulling away from these people. It doesn’t seem right to me.” He pauses. “I just don’t want to see you get hurt … You know me, I don’t like Nancy Grace.”
The undersea-skeleton story never goes anywhere. John and Patti Muldowney make an appearance on Grace’s show, where they slump embarrassingly in a pair of chairs, sharing screen time with a series of plump-lipped forensic analysts and other made-for-TV experts who yap loudly about the case. It seems that Garrison was right in advising them not to do the show, on the basis of pure tackiness if nothing else.
One day in June, though, there is a major break in the case: Natalee Holloway’s suspected killer—a 22-year-old Dutch kid named Joran van der Sloot—is arrested in Chile for killing a young woman in Peru. It’s an explosive story, and van der Sloot’s scowling, frat-boy face appears on magazine covers and in the full-time television rotation. The tabloids report that van der Sloot has told Peruvian authorities that he knows where Holloway’s body is, but will only reveal the location to the Aruban police.
Shortly after, Garrison signs up one of van der Sloot’s ex-girlfriends, an Aruban named Melody Granadillo, who started dating him in 2003, when she was 16. Their arrangement leads to an interview on 20/20, and Garrison pitches a book on van der Sloot to several publishers, imagining that it might be the crowning achievement of his career. “This one is big,” he tells me, “and it’s being done with integrity.”
ABC broadcast the 20/20 interview with Granadillo on June 18, and as of this writing, it is still available for viewing on ABC’s Web site. There, the following disclosure appears:
The teen saved everything from her dashing Dutch suitor, including a diary they shared, filled with pages upon pages of pictures, cards, emails and love poems. Granadillo licensed a selection of these materials to ABC News.