Byline: PORTRAITS BY MARTIN SCHOELLER
Bankruptcies ... fire sales ... banks on the brink: these are dark days for Wall Street. But, for CNBC and Maria Bartiromo, things couldn't be better. At 41, Bartiromo is a star, the Barbara Walters of business news, and the prize in an expected bidding war when her CNBC contract comes up for renewal. She has worked hard, for years, to get here, so the meteoric rise of another gorgeous CNBC anchor, 32-year-old Erin Burnett--"Street Sweetie" to Bartiromo's "Money Honey"--has everyone talking catfight. SUZANNA ANDREWS gets the scoop from both women
It is late in the afternoon on Monday, September 15, and it's been a chaotic day for Maria Bartiromo. She has been on-air for much of it, reporting live from the anchor desk at CNBC's studio above the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Behind her, a giant American flag hangs from the rafters. To her right, past the bank of cameras, flashing numbers on the electronic tickers record the calamity unfolding on Wall Street. The Dow has dropped nearly 500 points, dragged down by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the venerable investment bank that has just filed for bankruptcy, and by the news of the growing liquidity crisis facing the insurance giant American International Group. The night before, the iconic Wall Street brokerage house Merrill Lynch was rescued from the brink by Bank of America. And now there are rumors that the financial meltdown could spread to two other platinum firms, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. On the floor of the cavernous exchange, brokers and market-makers scurry to execute their final trades before the market's close. For Maria Bartiromo, this is a good day--"truly wild," she says--and exhausting, but filled with breaking news. At the sound of the closing bell, she checks the messages on her BlackBerry, adjusts the collar of her navy-blue Gucci suit, takes a deep breath, and begins her final hour of live reporting from the exchange floor.
Looking at the camera with her enormous, smoky blue eyes and speaking at a rapid-fire clip, she will do the job that has made her famous. In that familiar voice, with its faint Brooklyn accent, she will deliver up-to-the-minute news on the forces moving the financial markets--oil prices, interest rates, housing starts, earnings reports--mixed with inside stories on the latest corporate mergers and maneuverings, and on-air interviews with top C.E.O.'s, government officials, and the powerful fund managers who control the world's money flow. In the 13 years since she first stepped onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, microphone in hand, and, jostled and shoved by traders, became the first journalist to offer daily reports live from the floor, Maria Bartiromo, 41, has become a star--the business world's version of Barbara Walters. People stop her on the street and ask for her autograph; Joey Ramone, the lead singer of the punk band the Ramones, wrote a song about her. She has interviewed just about everyone who's anyone in the world of finance and politics, from presidents and Federal Reserve chairmen to Middle Eastern sheikhs. Today, there are few, if any, C.E.O.'s in America who do not return her calls and fewer still who turn down a chance to be interviewed by her.
As the crisis deepened--the $85 billion government bailout of A.I.G., radical market swings caused by panicked investors--Maria Bartiromo would interview many of the top players on Wall Street, including Ken Lewis, the Bank of America chairman, who turned to Bartiromo to give his first television interview concerning his company's $44 billion acquisition of Merrill Lynch. As he would announce at a press conference that day, it had been seven years since she interviewed him as the bank's new chief. In the years since, Bartiromo has managed to maintain her dominance at a time when there is more competition in television business news than ever before. With 800,000 viewers, her syndicated show, The Wall Street Journal Report with Maria Bartiromo, is one of the most widely watched business shows on television. Ratings on her afternoon show, Closing Bell, continue to rise. And with her CNBC contract--rumored to be worth $1 million a year--up for renewal next year, she is hotter than ever as executives at the cable networks--CNBC, Bloomberg, and Fox Business Network--line up for what is expected to be a bidding war.
If Maria Bartiromo is under any pressure, she does not show it. She looks cool and relaxed as she prepares to go on-air. As she does almost every weekday, she reads her notes and checks her laptop for any breaking news, not even glancing at the television monitors that surround her, monitors filled with the image of Erin Burnett, the anchor of CNBC's Street Signs, the show that precedes hers, and the hottest star to come along in business television since ...well ...Maria Bartiromo. In the press Burnett's been dubbed "Maria 2.0," and on Wall Street they call her "the Street Sweetie," a twist on "Money Honey," the well-known nickname traders gave Bartiromo years ago. Smart, effervescent, clever--and beautiful--Burnett …