All the shows on CNBC always look like they are shot inside a pinball machine. Today Maria Bartiromo’s is filming at the Nasdaq Building, and the chyron, the stock-market ticker, and the neon lights from Times Square outside blink furiously, the constant movement giving the impression that the network is on top of What Is Happening in the Markets in Real Time! But perched at a high, round table inside, Bartiromo, the caramel-highlighted host, and her guest, Chevron CEO John Watson, look like they’re having a calm, intimate conversation. “That’s really fascinating,” she says after Watson delivers a prepackaged spiel about how his company is “reinvesting our earnings in bringing energy supplies to a growing world economy.” She wants to know: “What sort of projects are most important to Chevron? And what would be most important, really, for the country?”
This is not the question a CNBC producer wanted her to ask—whether Chevron would continue to sponsor Tiger Woods. “As if!” Bartiromo barked when her assistant got the request via BlackBerry. She laughs. “As if!”
Afterward, as we are riding uptown in her black Escalade to a bookstore to buy a gift for her sister, a nurse who lives in Connecticut, I ask her why she wouldn’t do as the producer wanted. “These oil companies do not do a lot of interviews!” she says, eyes wide. She wasn’t about to jeopardize it to follow a tabloid story. “I stick to business,” she says. “That is, you know, who I am.”
Bartiromo, 42, is all business. She’s married to Jonathan Steinberg, son of the corporate raider Saul P. Steinberg, and lives on the Upper East Side in a townhouse, but, she confesses, she doesn’t do much besides work. “I love what I do,” she says. “But I have not been able to figure out the balance in life.” Still, it’s a long way from Bay Ridge, where, she says, “growing up, my nickname was Bullet, because I was always running faster than all the other kids.” Even this family-gift run is work: She’s talking to me to promote her new book, The 10 Laws of Enduring Success. It’s a self-helpish memoir peppered with life lessons from the likes of Bill Gates and Jack Welch.
Bartiromo is efficient like that. Her conversation with Watson will be sliced into derivatives that will pay off in various ways. A clip of it aired on her live show, Closing Bell. Afterward, she leaned in and—“That was so great, thank you so much”—got a few more moments of his very precious time for her other show, The Wall Street Journal Report. And of course exposure to such prestige enhances her own brand, which is that of someone who knows, gets, and is empathetic to Big Business.
If this approach has made Bartiromo very successful (she’s the network’s top-rated personality), it has also gotten her in trouble: Back in 2007, she made headlines when a relationship with a Citigroup source was criticized as too cozy. At the time, she suggested to the Times that she was being targeted by envious peers. She echoes this argument in the car, when the subject of Goldman Sachs comes up. “Anybody who has been very successful is sort of, you know, in the crosshairs,” she says. “I don’t know the specifics on the Greek story with Goldman, or the conflict of interest [with AIG],” she went on—unconvincingly, since the details have been widely reported. “But I think that Goldman has done really, really well. And when you’re doing well, you stick your neck out.”
Generally, in the crisis, “most of the businesspeople I meet tried to do the right thing,” she says. As did her network. “I mean, at any given moment in time over the last three years, you could have seen George Soros saying, ‘This is a Ponzi scheme, this is all going to fall apart because it doesn’t make sense’; you could have seen Robert Shiller saying the mortgage market is headed for a decline. And you could have seen Angelo Mozilo from Countrywide saying ‘Housing is great, take out a mortgage.’ So. Did we miss it? I don’t know that we missed it.”
The car pulls up to Bookberries. The tables are packed with books recounting the near-collapse. Her fingers pass over On the Brink, former Treasury secretary Henry Paulson’s meltdown memoir. “I was thinking of getting her this. Would she like it?” she asks me. I vote no. She gets a book about gardening instead. Then she has to leave for a dinner with an important figure she asks I not name. “That was great,” she says warmly, making eye contact as she shakes my hand. “Thank you so much.” Then, climbing back into her Escalade, she goes on to the next segment.