By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 27, 2007
NEW YORK -- At 7:14 a.m. last Monday, from a narrow balcony overlooking the New York Stock Exchange, Erin Burnett told the "Today" show that the Federal Reserve had stopped the market's bleeding, "but you don't know how deep the cut is and whether the Band-Aid will be enough."
At 8:19, when MSNBC's Joe Scarborough threw her a curveball about Howard Stern's fascination with Lou Dobbs, Burnett blurted: "What Lou once did, he ate all my french fries."
Ninety minutes later, while co-hosting her CNBC morning show, Burnett ad-libbed the tease for an upcoming segment: "I guess we're having some philosophical deep thoughts. Deep thoughts, coming up on 'Squawk on the Street.' "
Less than two years after joining the business channel, Burnett is everywhere, from "NBC Nightly News" to "Hardball." She's been praised by Rush Limbaugh, mocked by Jon Stewart and ogled by Chris Matthews.
The 31-year-old is razor sharp, works crazy hours, is comfortable discussing liquidity or collateralized debt obligations -- and everyone keeps talking about her looks. Under the lights, in a smoky blue dress that matches her eyes as well as her shoes, her flowing dark hair perfectly teased, she is not exactly hard on the eyes.
"It's television, so you can't fully avoid that," Burnett says. "Once you get by that veneer, people aren't going to give you the time of day if you don't deliver the goods."
Yes, but . . .
"Do looks play a role in who gets what in television? I can't deny it. But if that's what you had to offer, you couldn't stay in that position."
The press has cast her as the new Money Honey, a kind of Maria Bartiromo 2.0, and even some of her colleagues seem mesmerized. During an MSNBC interview this month, Matthews egged her on: "Could you get a little closer to the camera? . . . Really close." When Burnett expressed puzzlement, Matthews exclaimed: "You look great! . . . No, you're beautiful. I'm just kidding. I'm just kidding. You're a knockout." Burnett now calls it "a strange moment."
Anyone who thinks Burnett is just a pretty face should watch her in action at the exchange. After arriving at her CNBC booth at 6 a.m., she is a study in multitasking: scanning the wires, tracking stocks, writing on-screen headlines, calling sources and conferring with producers both at "Squawk" and "Street Signs," the afternoon show she hosts.
On this Monday morning -- after a month in which a housing credit crisis sent the Dow plunging more than 1,100 points -- one of the big stories is Thornburg Mortgage, which announced that it had sold off a third of its $56 billion portfolio at reduced prices. Burnett, who personally books such high-profile moneymen as Donald Trump, reaches Thornburg President Larry Goldstone on his cellphone. She had already lined up an exclusive interview with Goldstone but wants his take before she goes on the air.
"Why should I see this as a good thing rather than a bad thing?" Burnett asks, scribbling notes with her left hand.
While Burnett enjoys the grunt work of financial reporting, there are reminders that her fame now transcends CNBC. When "Squawk" co-host Mark Haines arrives on the set, he teases her about having become fodder for "The Daily Show."
"I saw the Jon Stewart thing," Haines says. "Here's the problem: If you're on his radar screen, I might be collateral damage."
"They chose to take it out of context," Burnett protests.
In this case, she had left herself open for ridicule. Asked on "Hardball" about the repeated recalls of Chinese-made toys, Burnett said: "If China were to revalue its currency, or China is to start making, say, toys that don't have lead in them or food that isn't poisonous, their costs of production are going to go up, and that means prices at Wal-Mart here in the United States are going to go up too."
On his Comedy Central show, Stewart intoned: "This is Erin Burnett for the Save the Money Foundation. Because every penny you save will help offset the cost of your child's long-term debilitating health care needs."
Burnett offers an elaborate explanation about the trade-off between price and quality and says she wasn't suggesting that kids should be given poisonous toys. "Certainly I could have said it better," she concedes.
After the Dow broke 14,000, she attracted a different kind of attention, noting on "Today" that "virtually all Americans are seeing wages rise, and unemployment is at a historic low. . . . The top 1 percent of Americans pay 30 percent of taxes in this country. The bottom 20 percent of American wage earners pay only 5 percent." On his radio show, Limbaugh said: "I want to give an 'attagirl' here to CNBC correspondent Erin Burnett, probably now ruining her career because I have praised her."
Says Burnett: "That's a sign that you're doing your job. Truth is rarely all left-wing or right-wing."
NBC executives love the Burnett buzz. "She's smart and driven and really cares, and that comes through in everything she does," says CNBC Senior Vice President Jonathan Wald. "She's not afraid to bring a strong point of view even if it's on 'Today' or 'NBC Nightly News,' where a strong point of view is not always encouraged."
Burnett grew up on a farm in Mardela Springs, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where soybeans, corn and watermelons were grown. She once watched bulls fight outside her window after a neighboring herd wandered by. The setting was so rural that she attended an elementary school founded by her parents in nearby Salisbury.
At a Delaware boarding school, recalls John Lyons, Burnett's former history teacher, "she told me she had once written to Dan Rather and Peter Jennings, and that's what she wanted to do one day. She had an impetuous sense of humor and always had a twinkle in her eye. This kid was enthralled by ideas and never showed any sign of sweat."
Burnett majored in political economy at Williams College, where she also played field hockey. "She was a top scorer, and incredibly studious," says former teammate Melissa Winstanley. "She stood by me no matter what. I've recently gone through a divorce, and Erin is always the person I call even though we're in two different places."
After her 1998 graduation, Burnett signed on as an analyst at Goldman Sachs. From that point on, doors just seemed to keep opening.
When Willow Bay, whom she recognized as a former Estee Lauder model, was hired as a CNN financial anchor, Burnett wrote to her and was hired as her assistant. After Burnett was promoted to a booker's job, Citigroup recruited her to help create an online financial news service. It was there -- "doing thousands of interviews that very few people watched," she says -- that Burnett honed her skills.
In 2003 she sent a tape to Matthew Winkler, Bloomberg's editor in chief, and was hired for its business channel, where she received several months of voice coaching. Two years later, CNBC offered Burnett the co-host job at "Squawk on the Street" and paired her with Haines, an acerbic veteran.
"We were like two dogs circling around," Burnett says of her initial encounters with the man she calls "an endearing curmudgeon."
"We hit it off immediately," Haines says. "She's very bright, funny. She's not a diva. She understands the markets. She works like a dog. It's just a ball to work with her."
Within months Burnett was given "Street Signs" and began making appearances on NBC, which have multiplied during the market's recent gyrations. "It's been an immense responsibility," she says. "We've been purveying facts rather than becoming part of the fear-mongering." Burnett and Bartiromo alternate weeks of daily live segments on "Today."
Since Haines and Burnett launched "Squawk on the Street," the show is up 44 percent in the ratings, to 326,000 viewers, and 144 percent in the key 25-to-54 age group. CNBC expanded it to two hours last month.
With her rapid-fire delivery and easy banter, Burnett is remarkably relaxed before the cameras. She claims to know nothing about putting on makeup -- causing a crisis when the makeup woman failed to show during a storm -- and has declined to join the legions of fake blondes, bowing briefly to network pressure to add highlights but deciding she preferred being a brunette.
As "Squawk" opens on this morning, Burnett asks whether the market is returning to normal, does the interview with the Thornburg executive and gets a one-minute warning before the opening bell.
"Look at that crowd," Haines teases. "They're going to start chanting any minute, 'Er-in! Er-in!' " They descend to the trading floor for the 9:30 opening.
Between interviews with market analysts, Burnett makes clear she's no financial guru, telling viewers that she has been "taking a beating" in small-cap funds. Burnett owns only index funds -- CNBC executives and editorial staffers are not allowed to trade individual stocks -- but neglected to adjust her portfolio during the market plunge.
She seems to subsist on little food, her sole intake before noon consisting of coffee and a bag of Sun-Maid dried apples, nibbled while Haines is doing the talking. And she admits that the torrid pace has left her exhausted.
Still, Burnett always seems to be planning three steps ahead. During a commercial, she says to producer Robert Hand, with the casual air of someone ordering a tuna sandwich, "See if you can book Hank Paulson for tomorrow." The Treasury secretary accepts the invitation.
When Burnett is reporting from the floor, the legions of male traders take notice. "They buzz around," Haines says. "They want to know if she's married, if she has a boyfriend."
Burnett is tight-lipped on the subject, saying only that she's "in a relationship." After a pause, she adds: "And it's not with a woman." Further interrogation reveals only that her beau works in financial services.
"Today" is already tapping Burnett for broader assignments, such as a recent profile of Rupert Murdoch (who, she neglected to mention, is launching a Fox business network this fall to compete with CNBC). Over the weekend, Burnett went to New Hampshire to interview Rudy Giuliani on tax policy, jumping on an offer from the former mayor's camp. Burnett doesn't rule out a future beyond business news -- and recently hired Katie Couric's agent -- but insists financial reporting is far more than a journalistic niche.
"There is a money angle to everything," she says.A Question of Defection
The new Fox Business Network, meanwhile, is already trying to raid CNBC's talent pool.
Fox is interested in Eric Bolling, who had been a regular panelist on CNBC's "Fast Money" but quit last week. A day later, Bolling popped up as a guest on Neil Cavuto's Fox show -- a clear finger in the eye by Rupert Murdoch's operation, which is expected to sign another recently departed CNBC anchor, Liz Claman. Other top CNBC talent is locked up for a while.
A CNBC lawyer wrote Bolling that the channel is "gravely concerned" that he had violated his contract, which "generally prohibits you from providing on-air television services except to CNBC." Bolling had sued unsuccessfully to overturn the non-compete clause, which lasts for six months after his departure.
CNBC spokesman Kevin Goldman confirmed Bolling's resignation and the "contractual limitations" on his TV appearances. As for the new Fox channel, which launches Oct. 15, Goldman says: "We're not worried about their poaching."