Maria Bartiromo Was a Generational Icon for Financial Television. What Happened?
Inside the Fox Business Network star’s transformation
Over at the Fox Business Network, believe it or not, there seems to be considerable schizophrenia when it comes to President Donald Trump.
There are the Lost Causes, such as Lou Dobbs, Stuart Varney, and Trish Regan, who are so pro-Trump on a daily basis that it’s hard to tell where the White House ends and their television studios on Sixth Avenue begin.
There are also those, such as Neil Cavuto, Liz Claman, and Charlie Gasparino, who do their best to steer clear of the president of the United States, and just try to report — wait for it — the business news of the day.
And then there is Maria Bartiromo.
In an era that seems to prefer affirmation over information, she may be in a class by herself. The Brooklyn-born-and-raised Bartiromo, who once dominated the lane reporting on the vicissitudes of the stock market, has been busy lately transforming herself into a Trump acolyte. People have noticed. “Is this a piece on how she’s totally changed?” asks one FBN devotee. “How she went from being the ‘Money Honey’ focused on business to crazy-slash-drinking-the-Trump-Kool-Aid?”
Why, as a matter of fact, it is.
The former CNBC superstar, now 51 years old, pioneered the practice of reporting from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and made booking the top CEOs a blood sport. Along the way she rose to the very top of her profession.
“Maria is simple,” says Dylan Ratigan, a former CNBC anchor and colleague. “Maria, regardless of anybody’s opinion, my own included, is a generational icon for financial television. Full stop. Unlike anybody else in the business, she made a name and created a presence for herself, and she made financial television something people watched because of those hits on the New York Stock Exchange so long ago.”
Bartiromo has been at Fox since 2014, after some 20 years at rival CNBC. She is coming to the end of a six-year contract that has paid her $6 million per year. “They promote Maria like she’s God,” says one Fox Business employee, who like several people I spoke with about Bartiromo requested anonymity for fear of crossing her or the network. (Full disclosure: I am a paid contributor to CNBC and an unpaid contributor to MSNBC, and have made occasional appearances over the years on both Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network; Institutional Investor has a partnership with CNBC to help produce the investment conference Delivering Alpha.)
There is no question that she works hard for the money. Bartiromo has her own three-hour morning show, Mornings With Maria, on FBN, which competes on weekdays with CNBC’s Squawk Box, where three anchors — Andrew Ross Sorkin, Becky Quick, and Joe Kernen — share the labor. She does Mornings With Maria by herself. Then, on Friday nights at 9:00, she does Maria Bartiromo’s Wall Street — a show revived and previously hosted by Anthony Scaramucci, the hedge fund manager and onetime Trump communications director, and co-host Gary Kaminsky, a regular Fox contributor and a former Morgan Stanley executive. If that weren’t enough on-air time in any given week, she also hosts a Sunday morning show on the Fox News Channel, Sunday Morning Futures With Maria Bartiromo. It’s some 16 and a half hours of live, often unscripted television.
“One of the hardest-working people I’ve ever met,” Scaramucci tells me about Bartiromo. “She’ll run you into the ground. She works six days a week.”
But “What happened to Maria?” is a question that is increasingly being asked, sotto voce, in New York media and financial circles. Occasionally, that amazement over her transformation bursts into the open.
For instance, after Trump’s infamous August 15, 2017, press conference — where he seemed to defend the racial violence that had just transpired in Charlottesville, Virginia, by claiming there were “some very fine people on both sides” — Bartiromo tweeted in support of Trump, “T[o]d[a]y @POTUS @realDonaldTrump fights back w[ith] excellent press conf[erence] & facts.”
Larry Summers, the Harvard economist and former Treasury secretary (and former National Economic Council director and Harvard president) was appalled. He tweeted, “.@MariaBartiromo my friend, say it ain’t so. A serious person defending @realDonaldTrump #Charlottesville? Is this you or @FoxNews speaking?”
Summers, who used to appear on television with Bartiromo, hasn’t been on with her since.
In May 2018, Bartiromo claimed on her morning show that President Obama had “politicized all of his agencies: the DOJ, the FBI, the IRS, the CIA — they were all involved in trying to take down Donald Trump.” This was after Trump had tweeted the day before, “I hereby demand, and will do so officially tomorrow, that the Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes — and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!” Nothing came of these allegations — no surprise — although the topic did divert attention for a day or two.
But Bartiromo’s commentary did attract the wrath of S.E. Cupp, once a frequent guest on Fox News and now a CNN star. “Who is writing the story of Bartiromo’s spectacular career turn?” Cupp tweeted on May 30. “. . . It. Is. Stunning.”
In her third interview with Trump, Bartiromo steered clear of such topics as the Mueller investigation, his tactics along the border with Mexico, the high turnover in his administration, and the legal jeopardy faced by so many of the people around him. It was difficult to watch, if only because one kept hoping for some serious probing, which never came. Bartiromo was widely ridiculed on social media as a result.
“Almost every time Trump said something shocking or unsubstantiated, Maria Bartiromo let it slide,” CNN media correspondent Brian Stelter wrote in his nightly newsletter. “Sometimes she didn’t just fail to follow up, she encouraged it.”
Snippets of the pretape segments from the April 2017 interview — when Bartiromo was chatting with Trump before the cameras got rolling for real — are apparently legendary around the FBN offices.
“I hear you’re doing well?” Trump begins.
Bartiromo responds: “I’m doing great, the show’s going great, Fox Business is really doing well.”
Trump: “That’s what I hear.”
Bartiromo: “Our audience is your . . . your . . .”
Trump: “That’s my people!” He smiles.
Bartiromo, laughing: “We’re your peeps.”
On Sunday, September 16, 2018, Trump became the ultimate Maria Bartiromo promoter. In a series of tweets that day, he first urged everyone to watch her show, where, he wrote, “Russian Hoax the big topic! Mainstream Media, often referred to as the Fake News Media, hates to discuss the real facts!” Then, after the show aired, he tweeted again, “This show is MANDATORY watching if you want to understand the massive governmental corruption and the Russian Hoax. It will be rebroadcast this evening at 6:00 P.M. on @FoxBusiness. A must see!”
Yet whether Bartiromo’s asymptotic movement toward Trump has done anything for her professionally — other than to raise questions about her objectivity — remains to be seen.
Her ratings, depending on the show and the time slot, are a source of great pride around the Fox communications office. Fox Business Network, citing Nielsen Media Research, told Institutional Investor in early January that Bartiromo’s daily morning show had an average of 105,000 viewers per episode in 2018 (up 22 percent over 2017), as compared with 103,000 for CNBC’s Squawk Box. In a release provided to II in December, FBN proclaimed Bartiromo’s “first-ever yearly win” over CNBC in the time slot.
Not so fast, CNBC counters. It says it no longer uses Nielsen, which tracks only in-home viewership, as so many of its viewers are on trading floors and in offices and therefore do not get measured. It also notes that Nielsen does not track affluent viewers, who CNBC says make up much of its audience. (“Nielsen is the industry standard for TV measurement and tracks an affluent audience,” a spokesperson for Fox Business Network responds. “In fourth-quarter 2018, FBN delivered a higher median income across both the 25-to-54 and 35-to-64 demos, and in the most recent fall 2018 Ipsos Mendelsohn study, FBN delivered an audience with a higher net worth than CNBC.”)
“They got so hooked on creating themselves as a rival to CNBC — and they’ve done that successfully in the minds of some people — but fundamentally, the audience itself is a different audience,” says a former business news executive. “You know this. I mean you walk onto a trading floor. You walk into any office, you’ll see an occasional Bloomberg TV, or you’ll see all CNBC. You will never see Fox Business.”
Everything is relative, of course. The big kahuna at FBN is Lou Dobbs, whose hourlong show at 7:00 on weeknights logs some 343,000 viewers. Bartiromo’s Friday night show attracts 112,000 viewers, though her Sunday morning show on the much bigger Fox News Channel is a gusher, attracting about 1.5 million viewers. Fox points out that Bartiromo’s Sunday morning show beats out both of its competitors in the time slot — MSNBC’s AM Joy with Joy Reid and CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS — in terms of viewership. (For context, some 3.2 million people watched Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC on a nightly basis in December.)
Gary Schreier, who used to work with Bartiromo at CNBC, is senior vice president of programming at FBN. He lauds her work ethic, drive, and determination. “You’re not going to outwork Maria Bartiromo,” he says, echoing Scaramucci. “You might keep up with her, but if she doesn’t get the interview, it’s not because she didn’t try. She will go the extra mile. And it goes way back.”
He cites her upbringing in the surprisingly suburban Dyker Heights section of Brooklyn, where her parents owned the Rex Manor, a tavern and pizza joint turned restaurant and banquet hall founded by her grandfather Carmine Bartiromo and then run by her father, Vincent. (He sold the business in 1984.) Bartiromo dedicated her book The 10 Laws of Enduring Success to her grandfather. He “made my future success possible,” she wrote.
Growing up, Maria checked coats at the Rex Manor. “She’s a worker,” Schreier says. “Always was a worker. And her upbringing was: Whatever you do, be excellent. Do your best. Try 100 percent. And again, for someone who has accomplished so much, she continues to act like and work like someone who still has something to prove.” (Fox declined to make Bartiromo available to be interviewed for this article. After an FBN communications department colleague initially agreed to let me speak with her and we set up an October interview date, the colleague was overruled and Bartiromo’s participation was nixed.)
Bartiromo has definitely moved beyond Brooklyn. After graduating from a Catholic high school in Bay Ridge, she enrolled at C.W. Post College (now part of Long Island University) before transferring to New York University, where she graduated with degrees in journalism and economics. She is now on NYU’s board of trustees and gave the commencement address at the NYU Stern School of Business in 2012.
Bartiromo eventually made it to CNN, where for five years she was a producer and an assignments editor on Dobbs’s wildly popular nightly business show. She joined CNBC in 1993 and stayed for the next two decades, hosting a variety of daily shows, but most prominently Closing Bell and On the Money With Maria Bartiromo. She pioneered the now-standard idea of broadcasting from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and was one of the first woman television anchors focused exclusively on business news. She has won two Emmy awards. Ken Langone, one of the founders of Home Depot and a frequent Bartiromo guest, is a huge booster. “Look at the interviews she has,” he says. “This is heavy-duty stuff. I’m a big fan of hers for one reason: She behaves just the way she was raised.”
Others are more circumspect. “She was just very, very good at discussing the movement of stock prices, and that was it,” says Suzanna Andrews, who profiled Bartiromo for Vanity Fair in 2008. (Andrews, like many financial journalists, once wrote for Institutional Investor.) “She did it very well, and she was sort of autistic about it. She really was obsessed and really cared about what might make [a] stock price move on any given day — before she was in front of the camera. . . . I think she was somebody who early on fought very hard to find a place, a professional space that she could dominate. It may have been the size of a postage stamp, but she dominated it. Then the Peter Principle set in. You rise to the level of your own incompetence.” (In response, Schreier wrote in a statement provided by an FBN spokesperson: “Maria Bartiromo is one of the most successful and accomplished business journalists in the world. For anyone to smear Maria using the word ‘incompetent’ demonstrates a stunning ignorance of her body of work and smacks of an appalling level of sexism.”)
Joey Ramone, the late lead singer of the Ramones, wrote a punk rock song about her. (I watch you on the TV every single day, went the lyric. Those eyes make everything okay.) Bartiromo recently tweeted about getting her own Lego minifigure. She was known around CNBC for being fiercely competitive with her colleagues when it came to booking CEOs, agree a number of her former CNBC co-workers. “She’s a hustler, and she likes to win,” says one. “She’s competitive, and she likes to book. She’s a great booker.” Bartiromo would often make the calls herself to get guests to come on her shows, much to the consternation of some of her colleagues who left that task to the bookers. She would write them thank you notes afterward.
It was effective. CEOs would get airtime and not get too roughed up in the process. “She would get high-level CEOs to come on her show, and she became, I would say, the most iconic name in business news,” says someone who knows her well. “That was the very best of Maria. Then, on the other hand, she would stab any colleague in the back.” Such competitive tactics did not endear her to her fellow CNBC anchors.
Bartiromo made headlines of her own in early 2007 when it was reported by The New York Times, among many other news outlets, that she had “accompanied [Todd] Thomson” — then head of wealth management at Citigroup and a viable contender to be the bank’s CEO — “on Citigroup’s corporate jet to a series of client and other bank-sponsored functions in China.”
Bartiromo was in Davos when the story broke. Wall Street was abuzz with speculation, which only intensified after Thomson’s “abrupt departure” from Citigroup. Bartiromo denied anything was amiss, yet holed up in her CNBC office, steering clear of everyone. “She didn’t have anyone to talk to, literally no one to talk to,” says a former CNBC colleague. “She had no friends, because I don’t think she was very friendly.”
The controversy brewed for six weeks, but Bartiromo eventually won the backing of Jeffrey Immelt, then the CEO of GE, which owned NBC at the time. “Substantially, I don’t think she did anything wrong,” Immelt told the Times. Added someone who is familiar with the incident, “Nobody really knew anything. Nobody had any real evidence of anything, except that they were always seen together all over town and she had flown on his plane. It wasn’t enough to prove anything.” In 2008, CNBC gave her another five-year contract. (In April 2013, as part of the Thomsons’ divorce proceedings, Melissa Thomson’s attorney asked the court to subpoena Bartiromo for a deposition.)
In 2012, about a year before her contract was up at CNBC, colleagues noticed that Bartiromo had started veering to the political right. Many thought she had done so to attract the attention of Roger Ailes at Fox, who had a big checkbook and a business network to build. Ailes knew Bartiromo from their days together at CNBC. At the very least, the thinking went, Bartiromo could possibly start a bidding war for her services between Fox and CNBC, where she was making about $4 million a year.
“I don’t think she wanted to leave CNBC,” says a former colleague. “I don’t think she ever thought she was going to leave CNBC. I think she was trying to extract the maximum amount of money.” Ailes was expecting that Bartiromo would stay at CNBC, too, the colleague continues, but if he tried to lure her away, CNBC would have to step up and pay her more. “I think Ailes thought he was going to bid her up and CNBC was never going to let her go,” says a person familiar with how things developed. “And she’d end up costing CNBC more money. That is my suspicion on what his strategy was. Then all of a sudden, CNBC was like, ‘Okay. Take her,’ and he was stuck with this $6 million [a year] albatross. She was never a great broadcaster.”
For his part, then-businessman Trump was ecstatic. He congratulated Bartiromo via Twitter on her “big move” to Fox Business and added, “She is a total winner!”
Needless to say, Fox spins the Bartiromo story very differently. Schreier says it is her vast experience in the industry that makes her important to Fox.
“It’s invaluable to have someone like her, who not just works hard, but also, over 30 years, is recognized as one of the pre-eminent journalists in her genre and of her time,” he says. He then notes Bartiromo’s role in a variety of major events: the “investor revolution” that democratized the stock market; the dotcom boom and bust; September 11 and its effect on the New York Stock Exchange; globalization; the housing boom and bust; and, of course, the 2008 financial crisis. “She has done it all, seen it all, been in the middle of it, and keeps working hard,” Schreier says. “It’s just a great thing to have her here because we can point to that and say, ‘Work ethic is everything’ and ‘This is what you can achieve by having the right work ethic and the right attitude.’”
Asked if Bartiromo is worth what she is getting paid, given her ratings, Schreier deflects. “I would simply say that we are a very, very smart company,” he says. “We pay people, I think, fairly and what they are worth. But we do things that are the right business [decision] for the company. So whatever she is making, the company has evaluated that all in, and she’s worth that.” Will her contract be renewed — something that Rupert Murdoch himself would likely decide given the amount of money at stake? “Everything I understand is she wants to be here and we want her here,” Schreier responds. “Usually, those things work out.”
The cable network seems particularly sensitive to the suggestion that Bartiromo has become a Trump apologist. In that vein, a Fox spokesperson supplied me with a list of nearly 30 well-known CEOs and former government officials whom Bartiromo has interviewed in the past year — everyone from Steve Schwarzman and Jamie Dimon to Hank Paulson and Alan Greenspan. I was also provided with numerous video clips of Bartiromo interviews.
Schreier makes the point that in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, there has been an increasing intertwining of Wall Street, corporate America, and Washington that made it nearly inevitable that Bartiromo would lean into all three. “Maria has always adapted to everything,” he says. He notes that Trump is hardly the first president Bartiromo has interviewed; she’s interviewed both Barack Obama (when he was a presidential candidate) and Bill Clinton (on several occasions after he left office). “I would fully expect whoever the next president is, whenever that is, she’d interview that person, too,” says Schreier.
It’s part of the strategy at Fox Business Network. “We have a view of business news that’s broader, more digestible, more accessible than our competitors,” Schreier continues. “And that’s by design. And I think anything that seems to involve Washington, or certainly Trump, is viewed as political, when I would put forth that much of business news emanates from Washington now [more] than ever before, again going back to the financial crisis.”
Others, though, say Bartiromo is simply a Zelig who has morphed expertly into her new surroundings at Fox, where being able to get Trump on camera is both expected and a rite of passage. “You have to toe the line,” notes a longtime television business observer.
“She was always motivated by a killer instinct to get the most powerful people, the CEOs and the people closest to whatever the story was — which was always the CEOs — on the air first, just a machine-like drive,” explains another industry expert who knows Bartiromo well. “She saw an open lane and just barreled into it and never looked back. She was always looking over her shoulder to make sure she was the first one to get everybody. . . . It was a logical extension for her to go after the country’s CEO the way she did Jamie Dimon or the CEO of any publicly traded company.”
After the Vanity Fair piece about Bartiromo appeared a decade ago, she sent an “enormous bouquet” of flowers to Suzanna Andrews even though the story — about Bartiromo’s rivalry with fellow CNBC anchor Erin Burnett, who has since moved to CNN — was not particularly flattering. Andrews has kept a keen eye on Bartiromo ever since.
“She’s a good Catholic girl, really, really working-class, Italian,” she says. “When you put all that together, what you’re seeing today with her on television — and the only thing that I’m surprised by — is her vehemence and the rabid quality of how she thinks and speaks. It’s something I never saw before, going all in on Trump. I’m not surprised that she’s not thinking things through. I’m not surprised that her ideas contradict each other. I’m not surprised that she’s in over her head. That’s all understandable given what her talents are. The outlier here is the rage, the nastiness, which I had never thought Maria Bartiromo had.”
Has Bartiromo paid too high a price for her own success? It’s a fascinating question, and one that she alludes to in the aforementioned book. “It’s lonely at the bottom of the heap,” she writes, “when your BlackBerry stops buzzing, and the world moves on without you. Everyone wants to be close to success, and to have success. But what is success? How do you get it, and how do you keep it?”
She wrote that she felt the “urgent need” to answer that question for herself. “What if I woke up tomorrow and no longer had any of the external things that others (and, I admit, even I) regard as the proof that I’m doing well? Could I still look at myself in the mirror and say, ‘Maria, you are a success?’”