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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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.”

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Sheelah Kolhatkar is the features editor at Bloomberg Businessweek.

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