'The Atlantic' Profiles TV's Tabloid
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 viewersâ€™ 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.
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.