When a public company makes news, a chief executive can expect a text or call from Maria Bartiromo.
The veteran business journalist, now an anchor at Fox News, made her bones by getting sit-downs with the likes of Jamie Dimon or Warren Buffett. Guests would get a handwritten thank-you note afterward.
She broke ground at CNBC as the first TV reporter on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and became an iconic TV personality worthy of having a song written about her by punk rocker Joey Ramone.
But lately Bartiromo's former colleagues — many of whom admire her reporting skills and tireless work ethic — are wondering why she allowed her programs to become a vessel for President Trump's last gasp efforts to overturn the election results. CNBC insiders and alumni often exchange texts with tweets or clips of Bartiromo and the question “What happened?”
“There is a lot of eye-rolling,” said Ted David, a retired 20-year veteran of CNBC who anchored alongside Bartiromo. “Maria was always considered to be a principled professional. She’s losing a lot of respect from her fellow journalists.”
The voting fraud claims made on Bartiromo’s program and other shows are now getting closer scrutiny as software company Smartmatic has demanded a retraction from Fox News and other conservative networks over potentially defamatory remarks made about its role in the election.
Bartiromo insists she is not an advocate for Trump, despite the largely friendly interviews she has done with him. But she won't dismiss the president's claims that massive fraud at the polls robbed him of a victory in his 2020 race against President-elect Joe Biden. Does she believe them?
“I don’t know,” Bartiromo said when presented with the question during a recent phone interview. “That’s what I’m trying to cover right now.”
Bartiromo is on an island in the media world that is getting lonelier by the day.
Nearly every court case brought by Trump in effort to reverse the election results has been rejected, dismissed and at times even ridiculed by the judges reviewing them. Outgoing U.S. Atty. Gen. William Barr has said twice there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud. Former White House staffers and Republican legislators who have been steadfast supporters of the president have said it's time to move on.
Yet Bartiromo has continued to give the president’s unsubstantiated claims oxygen on her Fox News program “Sunday Morning Futures” — which according to Nielsen averaged 2 million viewers each week in 2020 — and her daily Fox Business Network show, “Mornings with Maria.”
While such a stance may not be surprising for a right-wing commentator or opinion host, Bartiromo has a reputation as a respected business journalist.
Even at Fox News, where she headed in 2014 for a lucrative $6-million-a-year contract, she has followed her own path. She reported on the threat of a coronavirus pandemic in early March when other talking heads on the network suggested it was a political weapon being used against Trump.
On Nov. 15, Bartiromo's Sunday program became a forum for Trump’s attorneys Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sidney Powell, where they have made false statements suggesting that ballot totals were manipulated by Smartmatic and software and hardware company Dominion Voting Systems. (Both legal representatives also appeared on Fox News' “Justice With Judge Jeanine” and Fox Business Network’s “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” where viewers can expect fiery and often unhinged-from-reality right-wing commentary.)
Giuliani falsely claimed to Bartiromo on Nov. 15 that Smartmatic was cofounded by the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and that it was designed to cheat on elections (in a tease for the interview, Bartiromo described it as "the Venezuela connection"). Powell said the company software was “designed expressly” for shifting millions of votes from Trump to Biden.
Those and other unsupported assertions were not challenged by Bartiromo beyond her asking the attorneys if they could provide evidence for their claims (at times she responded with a "Wow"). The statements were not disputed or corrected until a taped interview last weekend with a technology voting expert aired on Bartiromo's program, "Justice with Judge Jeanine" and "Lou Dobbs Tonight."
Bartiromo said she could not comment on the Smartmatic complaint due to potential litigation on the matter. But asked if she would have Giuliani and Powell on her program again, she said yes. Nor did she express any regret over having the duo on to present their unfounded claims.
"This is the sitting president of the United States, and his attorneys, which up until recently included Powell, have a right for their side to be heard and state their case," she said. "Viewers want to hear from all sides of this story. Since day one, my focus has been to peel back the onion on this. As new developments came out, I covered them and specifically pushed both Giuliani and Powell, as well as President Trump, on when they will bring forth the evidence backing their claims. I am not writing this story, but I am committed to following it.”
Bartiromo said her much-criticized interview with Trump on Nov. 29 that was filled with baseless claims about election fraud, was followed by a panel with former special prosecutor Ken Starr and attorney Alan Dershowitz that disputed many of the president's claims. But not pushing back during the interview itself made her the topic of late-night comic monologues.
The “Russian collusion hoax,” as Bartiromo calls it, is her rationale for giving a full airing of Trump’s election grievances. She asserts that plenty of talking heads went on television with comments and unsupported speculation on the investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians in their efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election.
“Let's remember where we are and what has taken place in the last four years, and that is a complete collusion narrative that was not true,” she said. “And anybody who you're talking to on TV, on all these networks, I would say probably 85% of the media was saying things that were not true. So when you're going to say things are being said that are not true, I think it requires some context in terms of where we are and what we've seen from the media and from a cabal of individuals who have just been toeing this line in an attempt to take Donald Trump down.”
The report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III issued in March 2019 did not conclude that Trump or anyone from his campaign colluded with the Russians' interference with the 2016 election. But Mueller's two-year investigation generated 37 indictments, seven guilty pleas or convictions and evidence that the president obstructed justice. It also found that Trump associates repeatedly lied to investigators about their contacts with Russians.
Bartiromo said she is surprised that other journalists have criticized her for giving Trump a platform to air his unsubstantiated election fraud claims. She has not denied that Biden is the winner of the election — she refers to him as president-elect. But she insists that Trump’s continued assertions are newsworthy.
"I know that John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, came on my show and said, ‘because of the virus, this allowed governors and local officials, mayors, to change the way we vote, and in some cases 90 days before the election,'" she said. "This is what the Trump team is arguing right now, that there were decisions made and not by the state legislature. And so, it was unconstitutional. That's what they are pursuing right now. I mean, aren't you going to cover what's actually happening and get to the bottom of it?”
What may be confusing for viewers is that other Fox News journalists have repeatedly reported that there is no evidence to back many of the claims presented by Trump, Giuliani, Powell and others.
Even Fox News opinion hosts such as Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham have moved on from the story, setting their sights on Biden’s son Hunter and his business dealings in China.
David and others who know Bartiromo believe her Trump coverage is an attempt to give the audience for the conservative-leaning Fox News what she thinks it wants.
Associates of Bartiromo — who has spent her entire adult life around ardent supporters of unfettered free-market capitalism and is married to Jonathan Steinberg who runs an exchange traded fund — say she has gotten more politically conservative over the years. But Bartiromo denies that’s the case.
"I've certainly broadened my portfolio in terms of who I'm speaking to and what I'm covering,” she said. "Have I become more conservative? No. I've always been pretty straight down the middle in terms of my personal beliefs.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.