By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 5, 2009
NEW YORK -- When Liz Claman made the jump from local television to business news a decade ago, she had never heard of Warren Buffett.
Last month, the Fox Business Network anchor aired an hour-long special with the legendary investor, who for the first time allowed cameras to record him teaching at a business school.
"I'm not a BusinessWeek reporter who knows how to perfectly distill a balance sheet," Claman says. "But I know a good business story when I see it."
A year ago, the self-described "crazy girl" took what some might have deemed a crazy step, giving up her CNBC anchor job without a new gig lined up. Claman soon signed with Fox's fledgling business channel, which reaches a fraction of the audience, and is enjoying her underdog role as an anchor during a three-hour afternoon block.
Part of the reason she rejected CNBC's offer is her "California free-spirit personality," Claman says, but also because she carried the baggage of having started there as a temporary freelancer. She felt the same way earlier in her career when "I never got the nod to be the main babe, the 6-and-11 [p.m.] holy grail of local news."
Claman, 45, was stuck in the middle of the pecking order at CNBC, where Maria Bartiromo and Erin Burnett were getting the lion's share of the attention -- and appearances on NBC -- lavished on female anchors. At Fox she is an unquestioned star, albeit in a far smaller constellation, and her experience provides a glimpse of how Rupert Murdoch's year-old start-up is faring.
On a recent Monday, Claman -- a bright red dress offsetting her red hair, her leopard-print stilettos hidden under the anchor desk -- begins the 3 p.m. hour on a down note. "Ouch -- after five days of gains, stocks across the board are taking a massive beating today," she announces. The Dow is down 420 points.
Claman talks about Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who is minutes away from giving a speech, but the control room puts up a picture of someone else, then quickly takes it down.
"I want to call an audible," Claman announces, launching into a discussion of airline problems, starting with her Continental flight the day before, which included charges for luggage and food. She calls for a graphic on the airline industry, but her producers, struggling with balky equipment, can't provide one.
Such minor mishaps are not uncommon, and Claman keeps things moving with little effort.
"There are no anchors I've ever worked with who are more involved with their hours without being heavy-handed," says Executive Producer Andy Hoffman, another CNBC alumnus. "She over-prepares, she asks for more research. I say, 'Liz, it's a four-minute interview.' "
Both say that booking top corporate executives is harder when you're the new kid in town, and that some insist on first appearing on CNBC.
"I'm not going to sit here and say it's an easy sell," Claman admits. "Apple won't talk to me. I think that's extremely myopic."
Claman's "Countdown to the Closing Bell" is the network's highest-rated show during market hours; it averaged 38,000 viewers last month, a big jump from fewer than 20,000 in September. (The figures, obtained by The Washington Post, are not released by Nielsen because Fox Business is not a full-time client.) CNBC, which recently trimmed its staff amid company-wide cutbacks at NBC Universal, has averaged 453,000 daytime viewers since September. Fox Business reaches 45 million homes, mostly on digital channels, which is less than half the distribution of CNBC. And Sirius XM recently dropped the Fox channel from its satellite radio lineup.
As the financial crisis has intensified, Claman, like other journalists, has tried to strike the right tone. "I'm very mindful about being honest and truthful but not scaring people and not overstating things," she says. "This is a situation that needs no heightened hyperbole."
Claman says she avoids business jargon in an effort to appeal to the average investor, sometimes using what is dubbed the Fox Business Translator. "At CNBC it was a game of who can be the smartest, who can throw around the most alphabet soup -- CDSs, CDOs," she says.
Although she is an anchor, she constantly works the phones. In September, Claman disclosed that the Securities and Exchange Commission was about to crack down on market short-sellers; her report aired 40 minutes before the agency announced the move.
Claman was always "a force of nature," says her oldest sister, Danielle Gelber, a senior vice president at Showtime. When Claman was about 12 and the family got its first video camera, Gelber says her sister "would pretend to be Barbara Walters, and we all had to pretend to be various celebrities and she would interview us. You can't make this stuff up."
Claman bounced around several colleges, from UCLA to the Sorbonne, and climbed the local-news ladder the hard way. After an entry-level job at KCBS in Los Angeles that included delivering newspapers to Paula Zahn, Claman worked at stations in Columbus, Ohio, Cleveland and Boston, picking up an Emmy along the way.
She admits she faced a steep learning curve in 1998 when she joined CNBC, immersing herself in Fortune, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal and trolling Yahoo Finance chat sites. Despite her inexperience, Claman called Buffett one day and he took the call, saying he had just been watching her on the air. Her soft-sell approach worked, and several interviews with the Berkshire Hathaway chairman followed.
"Too many reporters are so inauthentic," Claman says. "They look so greedy. They look so obnoxious: 'I need this to be exclusive!' I don't strong-arm anyone, ever."
When Claman got to Fox, she secured a rare joint interview with Buffett and Bill Gates, a board member of Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, and was able to get Gates's reaction to the news that Microsoft was abandoning its takeover bid for Yahoo. She seems to like corporate hotshots; her special on Buffett's teaching sideline last month was extremely friendly. Claman prides herself on eliciting personal details from CEOs, such as the fact that Jim Kelly, who once ran United Parcel Service, started out as a driver.
After a decade, she is getting some respect. A recent Vanity Fair article called Claman one of the top business anchors, distinguishing her from some other female financial correspondents, with "their short, tight skirts, low-cut blouses, and the way the Fox cameras focused on their legs and chests." Claman called that characterization unfair.
With a 7-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son, Claman does her share of juggling at her New Jersey home. "We both have nutty schedules, but the kids come first no matter what," says her husband, Jeff Kepnes, a CNN senior producer. Claman recently turned down the chance to be on a panel with Neel Kashkari, the Treasury official in charge of the banking bailout, because she had a private school interview for her son.
Whatever her achievements, one critic is difficult to please. After Claman covered Barack Obama in Chicago on election night, her mother -- a London-trained theater actress -- wrote her: "You were wonderful . . . for the most part."
"I could be at the mouth of Osama bin Laden's cave and she would say, 'You talked with your hands; don't do that,' " Claman says.Hubbub Over New Hire
Greg Sargent, a liberal blogger at TalkingPointsMemo.com -- who has taken whacks at The Washington Post on occasion -- kicked up a fuss in the blogosphere over the weekend by announcing that he's leaving that site to blog for . . . The Post.
Sargent has relentlessly defended Hillary Clinton against what he called unfair coverage and attacked the right's "wingnut slime machine." One posting was titled "Washington Post Takes Cues From Drudge, Runs Awful Photo of Hillary's Wrinkles."
The Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb, a former John McCain spokesman, wrote over the weekend, in a typical slap: "Sargent is an unrepentant Democratic partisan, which means he should fit in well with the staff at The Post, but also a top-notch reporter."
But it turns out Sargent isn't moving to the paper's Web site, washingtonpost.com. Instead, he is joining a site being launched by The Washington Post Co., according to a person familiar with the site. That person, who asked not to be identified because no official announcement has been made about the site, says Sargent is being tapped as a reporter to write a newsy, non-ideological blog, along with various contributors.
The site, to be called WhoRunsGov, will partly focus on profiles of government decision-makers, the source said. WhoRunsGov is expected to launch during inauguration week.
Precious Real Estate
The New York Times, which recently mortgaged its headquarters, must be in a tighter cash squeeze than anyone realized. Today's front page features a six-column color ad for CBS, stripped across the bottom, the first time in modern history that the paper has sold such prominent space.