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.

“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.
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Sheelah Kolhatkar is the features editor at Bloomberg Businessweek.

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