Excerpt: 'The Newsbreaker,' by Larry Garrison

ByABC News via GMA logo
September 7, 2006, 2:59 PM

Sept. 7, 2006 — -- Larry Garrison knows the news. Over the past 25 years, he has worked with a slew of networks and shows bringing to light some of the most significant stories of our time.

In his latest book, "The Newsbreaker," Garrison divulges untold details about some of the biggest stories of the past few decades, including the Oklahoma bombing, the Jon Benet Ramsey murder and the Mary Kay Letourneau scandal.

Garrison reveals what happens behind the headlines -- how the news changes from the scene of a story to when it hits a television screen -- and offers readers a rare look inside one of today's hottest industries.

I hate traffic. Driving home up Highway 101 -- Hollywoodbehind me and my home in Westlake before me -- a thirtymiledrive takes over an hour. The one good thing aboutSouthern California road time is that it gives a person a chanceto reflect.

I had just dropped off lunch for my twenty-one-year-olddaughter, Lindsay, at the movie set where she was working. Shehad forgotten to pick it up before work and coaxed me intodelivering it. I got to the set and was proud of my daughter'sprofessionalism. I spoke with the director for a moment andwatched a take. Just as I was leaving, one of the extras asked,"So, Mr. Garrison, what kind of work do you do?" I justsmiled, shook his hand, and walked back to my car.

My kids have a tendency to be a little dramatic. It's a directresult of having a father who has been involved with the entertainmentand news industry for the last twenty-five years. Fortwelve of those years, I've been a single dad. Because of that, mykids have often been exposed to my work. And like me, they'realso becoming goal-driven adults with a dash of overachiever.This troubles me when I think about my middle child -- howrelentless the business is that she's chosen. The money andromance of the entertainment industry are hard to resist, but it'sthose same traits that make it cutthroat and competitive.

Ambulance chaser and media whore are just a couple of theless flattering descriptions used to label me and what I do. Mostjobs have titles like firefighter, CPA, or whatever. One or twowords or an acronym, and that's all the explanation needed.The easy out for me is to say that I'm an executive producer forfilm and TV. But what I do requires much more explanationthan a simple title can provide. No matter what the shortdescriptions are, they describe only part of what I do.Ambulance chaser? Maybe so.

Part of my work requiresthat I be on the lookout for people who get caught up eitherdirectly or indirectly in a situation that is so far out of the ordinarythat their story becomes newsworthy. Personal injuryattorneys, the other so-called ambulance chasers, have been thebutt of jokes for years. Some view them as scavengers whoseonly purpose in life is to search out and exploit the misfortunesof others.

Most people go through their lives oblivious to theworkings of the civil law process, until misfortune rams intotheir lives and they really need help from someone who knowsthe system. Lawyers, I guess, will always take the brunt ofjokes -- until they're needed. Then they become a victim's bestfriend. Attorneys have to be familiar with the laws to representtheir clients well, to ensure the highest possible settlement, or tosuccessfully argue in front of a jury why their clients are entitledto compensation for their pain and suffering. Lawyers takean oath to do just that -- represent their clients to the best oftheir ability.

My clients are of a different nature. I don't practice in acourt of law; I operate in the court of public opinion. But thepeople I represent need me in the same way a victim needs alawyer. My clients have often been thrust into territory so far

from what they're accustomed to that the process could chewthem up and spit them out without someone like me to watchout for their best interests. In much the same way lawyers helptheir clients through the legal system, I help my clients navigatethe media machine, specifically the news media. And eventhough I don't always chase them, I am always on the lookoutfor them.

I have more than eighty other people in the field on thelookout. I call them stringers, field people, and sometimes producers,as they often work with me on producing a story for thenews. They could be doctors or lawyers or anything at all. Oneof my most significant researcher/producers is my sister, R.Stephanie Good, Esq. As a lawyer, author, and sponsor ofhumanitarian causes in New York, she has brought me countlessstories that have ended up in your living room via TV news.My sister does it to get the spiritual side of stories heard, butother bookers often have a different agenda. Most are moneyhungryor just get a rush out of finding newsworthy stories.They scour local papers, keeping their ears to the ground, knowingthat whoever is the first to find that story that makes yousay "Oh, my God" out loud may be in for a cut on a film orbook deal.

It has been said there are two sides to every story, then thereis the truth. I am on the lookout for the people who can giveyou the truth of a story that has captured public attention.Although I have dealt with stories regarding some of what goeson behind the scenes at the White House and with manycelebrities, most of what I cover is mainstream. It is not oftenthat I am involved in matters pertaining to national foreign policy,and I offer less attention to people who claim to have beenabducted by aliens. My work lies somewhere between thetabloid headlines and the stories covered in Time magazine, buteverything is fair game. And yes, I must admit I love thosemajor sweep stories that I put on the covers of magazines andbring to the attention of the world.

Maybe when asked what I do, my answer should be that Iprovide the public with the news stories it cannot get enoughof -- the kind of stories people talk about at the office watercooler, at hair salons, or over casual lunches. Most of the contentis not really that important in the grand scheme of things,but everyone knows the stories because they can't resist theirpull. I am not owned by any of the big news organizations anymore.Rather, I supply them with the stories viewers want toknow about. If the story and conditions are right, I'll develop itinto a book or movie.

The American public's appetite for news has changed drasticallyover the years, as has the news itself. A few decades ago,fatherly figures on sterile sets provided information on theevents of the day and left it to viewers to form an opinion ofwhat was important. They delivered the facts and the publicwas left to draw its own conclusions. Once in a while, the newscastersgave their opinions, but they clearly stated it was acommentary.

There were no twenty-four-hour news channels,and, aside from the nightly telecasts, most of the news showswere seen Sunday mornings and on the occasional bulletinsthat are now called breaking stories. News organizations leftentertainment to the entertainers that followed the newscast.Somewhere along the way, news moved away from the newsand became more of a business, and the priority changed.Ratings are paramount, and it is the American public thatdrives the ratings war.

News organizations still pride themselvesfor being accurate, informative, and unbiased; but the ratingswar has changed the face of news and the way it operates.Instead of the Walter Cronkites of yesterday, today you seeyounger and much-more-attractive-than-average newsmen andnewswomen reading news scripts into the camera. TV news hasbecome more of a show. News is delivered from elaborate sets,luring viewers to believe that newscasters are sitting in a livingroom while they sip their morning coffee; or that the newsroomreally is right there in the studio, and reporters can actually beseen working diligently in the background. Many times, a tickertape runs along the bottom of the screen to offer additionalnews, just in case the story being covered by the talking headisn't good enough to keep the viewer's attention. As they deliverthe news, there is more voice inflection here, little commentsthere -- whatever it takes to keep you tuned to their channel andnot the competitor's.

In Cronkite's day, all that was heard in a newscast was thevoice of the reporter. Now, when sad stories are reported -- thediscovery of the bodies of a young boy and his mother after anextensive search hoping to find them alive, for instance -- youhear mournful music in the background to accentuate thetragedy. There are also the shows that try to sway an individual'sthought process as they report the news. This type can beseen just about any time of day, seven days a week, fifty-twoweeks a year. These shows take current news stories and milkthem for all they are worth. The subject matter might be petty,like why movie stars' marriages fall apart. But it can also bemuch more significant, with far-reaching effects.

Ten years ago, in December 1996, the nation first heard thename of six-year-old Jon Benet Ramsey, who was found murderedin her upper-middle-class home in Colorado. The casesoon became the subject of household conversation, due to theamount of coverage it received. Before this, the job of the newsagencies was to report only the facts, but something changedwith the Ramsey case. The media took it upon themselves toplay jury. Instead of simply reporting the evidence, reportersanalyzed it on-air and drew conclusions as to what mighthave happened. No one came out and said that the child'sparents killed her, but almost every update to the story madesure that the public knew that the parents were the primesuspects.

When new evidence was brought to light, themedia would spin it to seem more damning to Jon Benet'smother and father. If evidence was introduced that mightlead people to believe the parents were not guilty, it wasdownplayed. With the barrage of reports and the loss of trueobjectivity, the media, in short, passed judgment on Johnand Patsy Ramsey and destroyed what remained of theirtragic lives. The media reports that Patsy was jealous of herdaughter and trying to live her failed modeling career throughJon Benet was sickening. It was almost as if the news agencieswere trying to establish a motive to support their suspicions.Reporting quickly changed to speculation and becamecruel.

I spoke with the Ramseys in the early part of 1997. We discussedthe possibility of doing a book to strengthen their casein the public eye, but at that time the media was on a witchhunt. Even though I brought plenty of information to the networksthat contradicted what they were reporting, it was toolate. The only thing they were interested in broadcasting wasabsolute proof that the parents didn't kill their daughter, orthings that would increase the suspicion that they did. It is a lotharder to prove you didn't do something than to prove that youdid. In my gut, I knew the Ramseys had nothing to do withtheir beautiful daughter's death. I remember the frustration Ifelt for them as we parted ways later that year.

In January 2005, DNA evidence proved that the Ramseyswere not guilty. Scientific evidence showed that someone elsehad been in the basement of the Ramseys' home. The newsmagazine show 48 Hours ran the report, and a few pieces didmake it to the air, but the damage was already done. The onlypeople who truly hold the media accountable for what theyreport are the media, and it doesn't add to the ratings whenyou admit that you were wrong. For every minute of coveragethe exoneration received, there were hours that implied theRamseys' guilt.

Maybe it was with the advent of cable news. Or maybesomeone just came up with the idea that if they could make thenews more interesting and entertaining, more people wouldwatch, the ratings would go up, and more money could bemade. Whatever the cause, the newscast as we knew it changed.Even the stories, or types of story, have changed. Things thatmade page three of the local newspapers in the fifties and sixtiesare now part of the headlines. What middle-aged man fromMiddle America killed his wife and almost got away with it, orwhat teacher is having an affair with her underage student?Things that were not considered newsworthy back then, orwere just swept under the rug, have become part of the headlinehype. The stories that really have no impact on the day-todaylives of the majority of viewers are the very stories that theybecome fascinated with and have come to demand from theirnews.

These stories have to have someone to tell them, and that'swhere I come in. I represent the people who have the newsthat the American public is hungry for. That hunger has createdmy job.