Maria Bartiromo, Erin Burnett: "There Is Not A Rivalry," "It's A Male Fantasy Thing"

As for their rivalry ... The rumors, both women say, have been a little creepy. "There was a point," says Burnett, "when they were running this stuff semi-regularly, and Maria and I, one of us would pick up the phone and call the other and just be like, 'Hey, that's really nasty.' You can't deny that makes you feel awkward. Both people are like, 'Oh my God, oh my God'--you know it's not true, but you don't know where it's coming from." To be sure, there has been competition between them. "If there weren't, people would say we weren't working hard enough," says Bartiromo. It was Erin, she says, who first called attention to the importance of covering the Middle East and India, during trips to Dubai, and then Mumbai. In April, Bartiromo went on her own tour, to Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Qatar, where she interviewed Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the prime minister and head of the country's $60 billion sovereign-wealth fund. There have been some major interview "gets"--including Christopher Ailman, the chief investment officer of the $160 billion California State Teachers' Retirement System--who say that they have gone on Erin's shows, only to be told that if they want to be interviewed by Maria on Closing Bell they could not appear on any competing shows. "Exclusivity is important to Maria," says Ailman, who says he now "only does Maria when I go on TV. She's No. 1."

"There is not a rivalry," insists Bartiromo. "Erin and I are friends." For Bartiromo the competition goes well beyond Burnett, and the pressure to stay one step ahead never lets up. "I'm always worrying," she says. "I mean, if I'm not worried about something, I worry." Last year she trademarked the name "Money Honey," and set up a company by that name to produce animated shows to teach children about money--although the company's name may change because she got "a lot of pushback" from people who thought "it was too sexy for children." She has a book to finish, on success, which is due in 2009, along with her BusinessWeek column and her television work. And, as she puts it, battles to fight. She says she is constantly struggling with her producers to get more airtime on her interviews, and her dream is to host a show with a format closer to that of Charlie Rose, which will no doubt be a demand she makes on CNBC--or anyone who outbids the network--as she negotiates her new contract. And she wants to maintain her hammerlock on the big interviews. If all those things are in place, says Dylan Ratigan, her co-anchor on Closing Bell, Maria isn't much interested in having Erin, or anyone else, as a rival. "As long as Maria is in a place where she feels comfortable, when she is doing what she wants to do, she doesn't much care what anyone else does. She's fine."

As for Erin, there may be a bit of a struggle getting out of Maria's enormous shadow. "No one wants to be compared," she says. "I have a great deal of admiration for Maria, but you don't want to be known as someone's '2.0.' Maria is amazing, but I want to be Erin 1.0."

Both of them, though, think the idea of a rivalry between them is particularly absurd, considering the on-air bitchfest among their male colleagues. Viewers at CNBC are regularly treated to screaming matches. Charlie Gasparino dressing down fellow correspondent Dennis Kneale during the Eliot Spitzer scandal: "You're not Client No. 1, right?" Kneale, voice shaking, shouts back: "I'd like an on-air apology. Show some class." Viewers have yet to see Maria and Erin hack at each other like that. "Oh my God, that is so true," says Maria, bursting into laughter.

There are some who believe that the rumors of a feud between Bartiromo and Burnett were started either by a disgruntled former CNBC employee or someone at Fox Business Network, or perhaps someone who falls into both categories, mainly because so many items about their rivalry have appeared in the New York Post, which, like FBN, is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. Bartiromo and Burnett, however, have their own suspicions about who may have started the rumors. "Erin and I have spoken about this," says Bartiromo, "and I just think that we both feel like, well, maybe at the end of the day someone is doing this, planting this, because it puts more attention on the network." Asked if she means executives at CNBC, she smiles and says nothing. CNBC roundly denies this, but it sort of makes sense. After all, a fight between two smart, successful, beautiful women does not make for a bad marketing tactic in a business that still caters largely to men. "I think that when people see strong, successful women, they love to imagine that there is a rivalry," says Burnett. "Maybe it's because there are not as many women. And maybe, I don't know," she says, rolling her eyes, "it's a male-fantasy thing."

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