Flying high with the Money Honey

February 5, 2007

The flap over CNBC news anchor Maria Bartiromo’s relations with financial giant Citigroup began with a Wall Street Journal front-page story on the firing of Todd Thomson, head of Citigroup’s wealth management arm. It seems that Thomson was booted, at least in part, because his bosses thought he was wasting money.

Among Thomson’s sins, in Citigroup’s view, was his decision to spend $5 million to sponsor a new environment-minded TV show for the Sundance Channel, with one segment to be hosted by his friend Bartiromo.

Thomson reportedly had been warned about his dealings with Bartiromo. She is CNBC’s star, a dazzling and telegenic standout in financial journalism, normally the profession’s brainy but dull back office. She had also been Thomson’s guest at a number of farflung Citigroup functions, the Journal reported. In November he had arranged for her to give talks to high-rolling private-banking clients in Hong Kong and Shanghai. He then flew back with her from Beijing on a corporate jet and bumped some Citigroup officials to make room for her.

With $90 billion in annual revenue Citigroup is a colossus, but its shares are in a swoon and it’s under stockholder pressure to rein in costs. Thomson, though his division was flourishing, was a plausible symbol of corporate profligacy – his sumptuous Manhattan office, the Journal said, was known internally as the Todd Mahal. Time to go.

So, faced with evidence of judgment it considered questionable, the bank acted decisively. And the media company? What was the response of CNBC, the number 1 U.S. financial news broadcaster?

Remember, this outfit is part of NBC, America’s very first network, the creation of radio visionary David Sarnoff, the proving ground of TV pioneer Vladimir Zworykin, the company that invented broadcast television and “Meet the Press,” the legendary home of the esteemed news team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley?

Naturally CNBC would be sensitive to the harm high-profile entanglements with top-tier newsmakers might do its credibility as a trustworthy news source. Surely the media organization would act no less righteously than a bank?

Well, no. CNBC did nothing of the sort. The network put out a statement defending Bartiromo as “one of the most prolific and well-respected financial journalists in the industry.”

And: “Her travel has been company-related and approved, and involved legitimate business assignments. Her record and reporting speak for themselves.”
An unnamed CNBC executive told The Washington Post: “I don’t think there’s even the appearance of a conflict of interest. We paid our way. This is what we cover. This is what we do.”
“We paid our way?” Not exactly. The New York Post figures the jet Bartiromo shared with Thomson cost $30,000 to $40,000 for the 15-hour flight from China, while CNBC’s payback – made at applicable commercial rates – came to no more than $4,000. She came out way ahead, particularly since that corporate jet is as much like a commercial flight as a hotel suite is like a hotel lobby.
“This is what we do,” the spokesman also said, an unintentionally truthful assertion. Last year Bartiromo made 46 public appearances for the network, three of them at Citigroup functions, CNBC said. The Journal determined that Bartiromo had done “substantial pieces” on Citigroup on-air 11 times since 2004, including four interviews with her friend Thomson.

The problem here isn’t just that a richly paid news diva is tone deaf to flagrant conflicts that would end the careers of lesser beings, who are forbidden to accept a coffee from people they cover. Bartiromo’s squirrelly standards were already apparent in 2003, when she interviewed then-Citigroup chief Sanford Weill on the air while noting she owned 1,000 shares of his company’s stock.

Lately she had taken steps, the New York Post says, to trademark “Money Honey,” which started out as a derisive nickname. That would enable her to get royalties from T-shirts, bumper stickers, chewy toys and the like.

The surprise isn’t Maria, it’s her handlers. In 2003 CNBC, chagrined by her Weill interview, radically tightened its conflict of interest rules. Now the same network sees no problem.

CNBC no longer perceives a difference between journalist and show pony. Bartiromo’s jet-setting isn’t, as the network claims, source development. She isn’t doing legwork on stories. She’s a corporate emissary and brand-enhancement, helping favored companies – many of them CNBC advertisers – to put on successful events. She partners with the world she’s supposed to cover.

So what happens when her duties as a journalist – duties to inform us, her public – obligate her to report news that would displease her network-approved consorts on the intercontinental banquet circuit? Do we get the news, or do they get the Money Honey?

Do you have to ask?

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