Erin Burnett has a face that’s made for high-definition. The first time I saw her, she was filling in as a guest anchor on NBC’s Today, and the sight of her in HD nearly gave me an aneurysm. My wife, sitting next to me, was equally transfixed by Burnett’s flawless complexion and piercing blue eyes. “Jesus Christ she’s hot,” she muttered, which is not something she usually remarks about TV anchor people.
As televisions get larger and digital technology sends pixel counts into the tens of thousands, it’s become increasingly difficult for TV personalities to hide behind the illusion that they’re Adonises without physical flaws or imperfections. But Burnett, unlike the vast majority of her news channel peers, somehow manages to look more attractive under high-res scrutiny. Not surprisingly, the 33-year-old wunderkind isn’t lacking for gigs. She’s appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press and MSNBC’s Morning Joe, and regularly hosts CNBC’s Squawk on the Street and Street Signs. (You can catch her new primetime special, Big Money in the Middle East, this Sunday, April 11th on CNBC.) Watch her on any of these shows and you might just think you’re seeing the future of TV journalism.
Oh, and Burnett also apparently says things on these shows. Things about Wall Street and the financial markets and the economic meltdown. I’ve listened to some of it, and it certainly sounds like she knows what she’s talking about. Some of it’s bat-shit crazy, like when she suggested that China could help Wal-Mart’s prices remain competitively low by continuing to make their toys and food as poisonous as possible. But for the most part, she seems like somebody with original, uncrazy thoughts who says words she didn’t learn phonetically.
With the economy still so confusing and scary, and an interview with Erin Burnett almost guaranteed to generate major Web traffic (especially if I include the words “Erin Burnett nude”, which is probably the Google search that brought a few of you suckers here), I called Burnett to ask her about the financial issues of the day. When I caught up with her, she was munching on stale jellybeans with CNBC publicist Brian Steel—who has the kind of bad-ass last name that announces to journalists “I will crush you like a bug if you ask my client any more stupid questions!”—while they were somewhere in the bowels of the General Electric underground news lair.
Eric Spitznagel: There are a lot of preconceived notions about Wall Street, and I’m hoping you can help us separate the myths from the realities. For instance, how many of the people who work on Wall Street actually have private jets?
Erin Burnett: (Laughs.) They probably wish they had their own private jets. But no.
O.K., what about henchmen?
See, now I’m confused. Doesn’t everybody on Wall Street have the annual income and moral compass of a Bond villain?
There are a lot of stalwart, solid people on Wall Street. There are just a few shady people providing the fodder for big budget movies.
It’s hard to tell if you’re being unbiased. The Huffington Post claimed that you’re one of those “embedded” reporters on Wall Street who’s too dependent on her sources to be truly objective. Is that a fair criticism?
Not at all. It was a ridiculous editorial and its only purpose was to be inflammatory.
So you don’t feel like you’ve ever apologized for or defended the people you’re supposed to be investigating?
Listen, I’m just trying to explain how something works. There have been people who are quick to say that it’s apologizing or defending, when it isn’t in any way true, right? It’s just explaining how something works. I think maybe that’s an understandable reaction by some people, given the lack of understanding and the sort of closed doors around Wall Street. I see my job as demystifying Wall Street.
But you’ve never slipped into sympathizing with them? You’ve never caught yourself thinking, “Aw, they’re just a bunch of lovable knuckleheads?”
My job isn’t to give an opinion but to try and explain what’s happening. People can say, “I don’t like how it works, I don’t think it’s fair, I don’t think it’s right.” Which is completely legitimate. During this crisis, we found out that there were a lot of things that needed explaining that couldn’t be justified and a lot of things that needed to be a whole lot more transparent than they were.
When was the last time you interviewed somebody on Wall Street and said, “Enough of your lies, we deserve the truth goddammit?!”
I’d never use the word “goddammit” in an interview.
We’ve heard a lot about how some banks and companies are “too big to fail.” I’m not sure I understand that reasoning. Weren’t the dinosaurs too big to fail? The Titanic was too big to fail. The Galactic Empire in the Star Wars trilogy was definitely too big to fail. Isn’t everything bloated and evil and stupid too big to fail before it inevitably fails?
Whoa. (Long pause.) The irony of this whole crisis is that all of the banks that were too big to fail got a lot bigger. J.P. Morgan bought Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual. Bank of America got Merrill. Bank of America and J.P. Morgan have really gotten a lot bigger. I’m not sure what you can do to prevent that. No matter what the legislation does, if something is incredibly big, it’s very hard to put in assurances and preventative measures in advance that would prevent it from actually causing massive damage when it fails.
If you watch enough cable news, it starts to seem like if AIG or Citibank goes under, we’re all going to be like Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes, staring up in disbelief at the disembodied head of the Statue of Liberty and screaming “You blew it up! Damn you! Damn you all to heeeeeelll!” If we don’t save those companies from bankruptcy, are we headed towards an ape-run dystopia?
(Long pause.) I don’t know. I would say no, but banks and availability of credit are the most basic and important things for an economy. What if the banks had failed? Nobody keeps cash anymore. We think society moves forward, generation after generation, ahead and ahead and ahead. We don’t realize maybe how reliant we are on things that are far from hunting and gathering.
I’m sorry to keep referencing movies, but I’m trying to understand the Wall Street bailout in ways that make sense to me. Let me know if this is a good metaphor: The world is Silence of the Lambs, and the taxpayers are the kidnapped girl at the bottom of the pit, and Wall Street is Buffalo Bill, the creepy serial killer who wants to make a suit out of our skin, and he keeps screaming down at us, “It puts the lotion in the basket!” Does that sound about right?
I’ve seen the movie, but the references are a little too pop-culture savvy for me.
Well, the lotion in this metaphor is the bailout, right?
O.K., I got it.
Do we put the lotion in the basket, or do we just flat-out refuse?
So you’re saying stop all the bailouts altogether?
Exactly. And then we’ve got to somehow trick Wall Street’s dog into falling into the pit so we can use it to negotiate our escape.
Well, at this point, you can’t stop the money that’s already gone out the door. It’s kind of water under the bridge.
Ah, I get you. If we don’t put the lotion in the basket, we’re going to get the hose again?
I get the concept, I get the point. But in practice, I don’t know how you do it. I would say this: it’s worth thinking about the fact that the people who paid the government back are the banks and the people who haven’t are Freddie and Fannie and the housing businesses and GM and the auto businesses and of course AIG. But the banks, who are at the center of this, they’re actually the ones who’ve paid back their bailout money.
When you were a panelist on Real Time with Bill Maher, you claimed that we shouldn’t “soak the rich.” But isn’t that the only way of finding out if somebody is a witch?
Let me just clarify. What I said on Bill Maher is that the wealthy pay the largest share of taxes. But I did not go so far as to say whether I thought that was a good or a bad thing. Bill Maher tried to imply that I did so, but I tried to toe the journalistic line of merely explaining the burden that they carry. But that being said… do you want a point of view on taxes, or why rich people pay more or what?
I was under the impression that this is our oldest and best method of identifying witches. If they float, they’re clearly involved in the dark arts, and if they sink, they’re innocent. So my question is, if we don’t soak them, how do you propose we find out who’s been dabbling in witchcraft?
(Long pause.) Hmmm.
Maybe there’s a better way of phrasing that question.
There are people on Wall Street who are not taxed the way they should be. There are certain loopholes that should be taken away. Private equity guys and hedge fund guys right now don’t pay capital gain taxes on stuff. There are changes that should be made that could be made. But they’re not going to fix our tax system. They’re not going to do anything to fundamentally fix our budget. So, it may be right to fix them, but it isn’t going to change the world, and it isn’t going to fix the budget hole. There’s no Holy Grail when it comes to taxing rich people that’s going to save anything.
What about bonuses? Tell me why it’s O.K. for the companies we bailed out to pay their employees big bonuses, and please explain it in a way that doesn’t give me a bleeding ulcer.
Well, bonuses needed reform. I will say that. They needed to link pay to performance. A lot of places on Wall Street have always had it be that way. It’s kind of a “you-eat-what-you-kill” approach. If you go out and kill something, you get a little bite of the meat. And that’s the way traders have been compensated throughout time.
Really? I would feel so much better about Wall Street if we were compensating traders with raw meat.
The concept, perhaps, of saying, We’re going to guarantee you for X number of years in advance, is something that could’ve used some reform and got some reform. But I think as a society, there’s a fine line between reforming and saying just because somebody makes a lot of money they’re a bad person. I don’t know where that line is. I don’t know. It’s very hard to say who crosses it and who doesn’t.
That line seems pretty obvious to a lot of us on the outside.
O.K., here’s a good example: There’s a company called Digicel that provides cell-phone services in the Caribbean. They are the largest provider, and one of the largest investors and employers in Haiti. They are able to do that and have been doing it in a lot of countries in the Caribbean because they’ve gone to the high-yield market and traders have sold their bonds. So those guys get paid a little percent of that. Now, it’s impossible in any given situation to say what’s worthwhile to society and what isn’t. But one can make the argument that for a lot of companies, if they’re able to raise money and use that money to invest in things that make people’s lives better in various places, that it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Now, I’m not trying to say Digicel is a good company. I don’t mean to take it that far. I’m just trying to give an example of how capital-raising can, in certain situations, be helpful. In certain situations, it can be superfluous and silly and done for no good reason. It’s very hard to determine where that line is. I don’t pretend to know where it is.
Well, I think capital raising starts to get silly when, say, Scrooge McDuck fills his pool with gold coins. That’s pretty silly and superfluous.
I think to paint everybody as evil who does it is maybe a little bit too simplistic. And to say that everything they do is societally worthwhile is equally as simplistic.
There’s an old aphorism that says “Those who can’t do, teach.” If you know so much about Wall Street investments, why aren’t you a billionaire?
Because of my job. We’re not allowed to invest in stocks. If I was allowed to invest in stocks, I would be a billionaire. But Mark Hoffman (president of CNBC) insists on running a tight ship. He doesn’t want us to buy a stock and then go tout it on television. I’m only allowed to own indexed funds.
On Hardball, Chris Matthews called you “beautiful” and “a knockout”. I have two words for you, Erin. Pepper spray.
I’ve got to say, I think he could’ve been nicer. Chris has said nicer things to other people.
Nicer things or creepier things?
Nicer things. I’ve heard things that are pretty darn amazing that he’s said, and I wasn’t on top of the list. He could have pumped it up a little bit.
Just tell me this, how many times has he called you into his office and he wasn’t wearing pants?
(Laughs.) Oh my god.
I’m sorry, that was totally inappropriate. But they pay me to ask the tough questions.
I know, I know. You just have to make sure. Because you are a good reporter and you should check things like that. Yeah, no, it never happened. Not yet anyway.
Rush Limbaugh has a little crush on you too, right? Is that flattering, or does it make you want to rush home and give yourself a Silkwood shower?
I’m friends with Rush. I believe what he complimented me on, if I recall, was a comment on the Today show which was just a factual statement about some income-tax bracket, right? Who pays what, or something. I just said it as a factual thing, and he happened to pick up on it and make it a part of his political thing, which obviously was not the way in which it was reported or intended. But the way I see it, if you’ve got people on both sides saying “Wow,” and picking up points you’ve said that they really agree with, then you’re doing a good job.
Are you constantly being hit on by hedge-fund managers and brokers?
Nope. They’re very, very respectful, I must say.
So nobody’s ever used a line on you like, “If I told you had a beautiful theory about extended unemployment benefits, would you hold it against me?”
(Laughs.) Nope. They must not feel the same way about me that Chris does.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com)