On the evening of Sept. 16, Brian Williams was jetting out of the CNBC studios in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., when he stopped to talk to a reporter about his extraordinary day.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average had plummeted 504.48 points in the most precipitous loss since September of 2001, dogged by news of Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy, Merrill Lynch’s hasty weekend sale to Bank of America, and A.I.G.’s still-uncertain future.
And Mr. Williams had broadcast his Nightly News program from a studio at NBC’s 24-hour cable business news channel.
“I don’t want to sound self-centered, but it was very important to me. I called my executive producer Alex Wallace last night at, like, 11 Eastern and I said, ‘I know where we need to be.’ We talked about being live from the New York Stock Exchange, Lehman Brothers—you can throw a rock at it from 30 Rock, that would’ve been easy—but this, to me, is the coverage of the American economy.”
Earlier, he was seated at an anchor desk in the middle of a vast newsroom floor that doubles as a working studio, the cameras trained on him, writing his headlines, preparing to report. He’d never broadcast Nightly News from CNBC before.
“If you stripped off this whole layer of the credit crunch thing, I would go back to having an incredible job,” said Steve Liesman, senior economics reporter at CNBC.
Mr. Liesman, a former Wall Street Journal reporter like many others at the nearly 20-year-old business news network, had been covering the story all weekend, filing dispatches for the Web site, appearing on Nightly News, working the phones, participating in a last-minute half-hour Sunday night special that eventually stretched to three hours, ending at 11, when coverage was handed over to the Asian bureau. He’d managed to squeeze in an hour in the pool with his kids at home in Pelham, N.Y., on Sunday, before appearing on-air again at 5 a.m. Monday and at least once during almost every hour since. Midafternoon, he seemed astonishingly relaxed, fielding phone calls from his cluttered cubicle on the quiet second floor of CNBC’s expansive, spaceshiplike offices in a flashy yellow tie and expensive-looking suit, his bald head having been buffed numerous times already by the on-set groomer. Mr. Liesman, who covers the Fed, had a large nameplate on his desk: Ben S. Bernanke, it read.
He was due on-air again in nine minutes. “I don’t want to be immodest here, but I think we’re kicking butt,” he observed.
“I was in the control room at the Today show on 9/11, and it feels a lot like that,” said Jonathan Wald, CNBC’s stoic, young-looking senior vice president of business news and a former Today producer, as he drank a can of Diet Coke with lime in his office overlooking the newsroom. “Where so much is happening, you’re not really sure, it feels like it’s happening for the first time; you need as many smart people around you as possible to help explain it and help put it into context.” He compared his reporting team to “Murderer’s Row on the 1927 Yankees.”
The Web site had already seen its best day ever, with 11.6 million hits and six hours still to go in the day. (The final tally: 14,615,227.) The daytime business broadcasts would be the most watched since Sept. 17, 2001, when the markets reopened after the terrorist attacks. “I think this is among the most critical times in the history of the network,” CNBC’s president, Mark Hoffman, had said earlier, in his office overlooking New Jersey’s Route 9W.
The newsroom was buzzing over the success of a growing list of triumphs in its coverage of the current disaster: the lengthy, hastily assembled program Sunday night, a Maria Bartiromo exclusive earlier that day with Ken Lewis, head of Bank of America and “the new king of Wall Street,” and a smaller coup by reporter Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, who had BlackBerried an NBC reporter at Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson’s press conference from the White House Monday and prompted her to ask the question on CNBC’s mind—does Mr. Paulson support the Fed giving A.I.G. a bridge loan? “He equivocated, but we got it asked,” said Ms. Caruso-Cabrera, heading home before Nightly News to prepare for another 5 a.m. morning, after getting two hours’ sleep Sunday night. She called the day “breathtaking.”
Mr. Williams’ Nightly News countdown began, and he proceeded to quiz several CNBC personalities on-air about the crisis, among them Erin Burnett, the young, perky breakout star poached from Bloomberg who has been called the new Money Honey, a reference to her status as possible successor to established CNBC star Maria Bartiromo (who was reporting off-site from the N.Y.S.E.).
Ms. Burnett had been working all weekend—“I think everyone feels a little bit exhausted,” she had said—and was to leave town Tuesday for a friend’s wedding in the south of France, where she would continue to report remotely. (As of Tuesday morning, CNBC said she’d in fact be reporting from Englewood Cliffs for the rest of the week.) “You gotta be available when you gotta be available,” she shrugged.
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.