Big Day in Englewood Cliffs

As the news had worsened throughout the day, with evening producers awaiting word on A.I.G. to direct their script, Mr. Wald had warned Ms. Bartiromo on a conference call from a late-afternoon meeting that the evening’s special might stretch beyond the allotted two hours. “The important thing, just like last night, Maria, is calm.”

A little later, in a cubicle on the newsroom floor, Charlie Gasparino, who had been reporting on the investment banks, explained that caution had also been the word of the hour in breaking the incendiary news, on Friday, that Lehman was shopping itself.

“Just so you know, I went out of my way to make sure I got it confirmed, because I was worried that if you say something, even if it’s a little wrong, you spook the markets,” he said. He’d been mentioned, with reporter David Faber, in an August Vanity Fair piece that essentially accused CNBC of spreading unfounded rumors started by short-sellers with a death wish for Bear Stearns, thereby setting in motion Bear’s collapse. But while Mr. Gasparino called this new crisis “half exciting, half scary,” he dismissed the VF piece as “complete nonsense.”

“I think the Lehman thing kind of shows that you just can’t talk a firm down to bankruptcy by rumors,” said Mr. Gasparino. “You can’t blame it on the press. I think what the Vanity Fair thing proved to me was that in the past, a story like that would have been written about The Wall Street Journal”—Mr. Gasparino’s former employer—“because The Wall Street Journal would have led the coverage on that. Instead, the story was written about us, because we led that coverage, and we led this as well.”

In a packed control room, producers had launched into the evening’s special, introduced by an apocalyptic fire graphic that formed the backdrop for various boxes throughout the program. “The biggest lesson I learned at the Today show is that the Today show doesn’t go on because it’s ready, it goes on because it’s 7 a.m.,” Mr. Wald had said wryly. Ms. Bartiromo, who looked tired during daytime broadcasts—where, from the newsroom, she appeared to be permanently on-air—had had her makeup refreshed, and was still holding down the fort at the exchange. Only between segments was she unsmiling and exhausted.

Tension climbed in the control room as news hit that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was late for an interview; a White House bumper for the Washington segments was nowhere to be found; and there were technical problems with a shot of former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich that prevented him from going on the air (no matter; he turned up on a monitor broadcasting MSNBC a short time later).

Ms. Pelosi finally appeared on air, interviewed in D.C. by CNBC Washington correspondent John Harwood.

Suddenly, breaking news: S&P had downgraded A.I.G. It was the spark the program needed. “Get Maria up, she might need to react, this could be huge!” said producer Sandy Cannold as Mr. Faber broke into the broadcast to report the news.

The staff immediately lurched into action, booking spontaneous phone-in interviews with investors. The program went entirely off the cuff. “Let’s get Kudlow out there,” said Mr. Cannold. “Can I get Asia back up? Don’t let these guys go! Does Maria have any anecdotes she can add?”

Someone suggested calling London.

“It’s 2 o’clock in morning,” said Mr. Cannold.

“Now it’s getting good,” said Mr. Wald, who had wandered back into the control room, chewing gum.

mbryan@observer.com