By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 16, 2002; Page C01
Every so often, Neil Cavuto erupts on the air.
"We've been dissed again," the Fox News business anchor told viewers after Microsoft executives refused to come on to discuss an alliance with Verizon. "I think I'm getting the shaft here. . . . If you're as ticked off about this as I am, you're free to let the company's interview coordinator know," he said, reciting her name, phone number and e-mail address. As for Microsoft, he declared: "If you hate me or Fox, just say so. You don't have to give me bogus excuses."
Asked about the outburst, Cavuto says: "I flipped a gasket." As for another commentary in which he assailed CNN's Lou Dobbs, he says: "I'm Italian. I got angry."
Cavuto is just as critical of "simplistic coverage," saying that the past week's dramatic market slide is not the result of "one or two or three crooked CEOs. That might strike some as being an apologist. I'm not here to fan the flames."
At 43, Cavuto should be flying high. His once-invisible 4 p.m. program, "Your World With Neil Cavuto," is up 170 percent in the ratings this year with an average of 686,000 viewers, outdistancing Dobbs's "Moneyline" (with 507,000 viewers) and CNBC's "Business Center" (280,000 viewers). He just signed a five-year contract for more than $1 million a year. But he remains edgy and unpredictable, and there are colleagues who view him as something of a flake.
"Some people are convinced, from my style, that he's gotta be on something," Cavuto says.
Cavuto was making light of a serious subject: his own medical condition. He suffers from multiple sclerosis, though there are no overt signs on the air, and sometimes uses steroids and other drugs. Still, he arrives here from his New Jersey home at 6 each morning, manages a business staff of 30 and also does a weekend show.
"I don't want to be judged based on my illness," he insists in his Sixth Avenue office. "People say with your illness, you should cool it. But we shouldn't be looked at differently or be anything less than hard-charging."
Rivals say Cavuto, a former CNBC correspondent, is crowning himself the king of business news when his program features as much general news as financial reporting -- and that his journalistic boat is being floated by Fox's recent success.
"I've got to give viewers a reason to watch," he says. "If I'm doing what CNBC does, they've got a lot more resources and a lot more bench strength."
CNBC, whose ratings surged during the late-1990s bull market, has seen a 23 percent decline this year. "What undid CNBC is that it never changed the model," Cavuto says. "They're married to the market. It's great when the market is going your way, fatal when it isn't."
"Business Center" co-host Ron Insana says CNBC, which broke the story of WorldCom's accounting debacle, is being helped by the recent focus on corporate scandals.
"Everyone's going to say I'm rationalizing the network's position, but 9/11 was the point at which the general news cycle changed, and CNN and Fox were the direct beneficiaries," Insana says. "Both programs that claim to be competitors of ours are now general news shows. We're not in the same business. If you work for a niche service, you don't abandon your niche because times have changed. It's like telling a stockbroker to become a surgeon."
When CNN ran ads touting the 6 p.m. "Moneyline" as the top-rated business show -- the fine print said in the evening -- Cavuto used his own program to protest.
"Let's be real here -- selectively saying what you want to say in an ad is lying. . . . When Fox claims it has the number one business cable show, you're looking at it," he announced.
Dobbs, whose own ratings are up 107 percent this year, brushes off the criticism, saying: "I don't respond to silliness." Asked whether he considers Cavuto a rival, Dobbs says: "If he would like to compete with us, he's welcome to join us in the 6 p.m. hour and compete head-to-head."
In his on-air commentary, Cavuto even unloads on people who have nothing bad to say about him. He waded into a battle between Fox News President Roger Ailes and CNBC commentator Jim Cramer, who left Fox amid bitter litigation. "Just because you used to do a show here doesn't mean we miss you," he scolded Cramer. ". . . I don't need your crap. When you slap Fox News, Jim, you slap me."
Cramer called the slam "uncharacteristic and surprising," saying: "I am sure he regrets it and I don't want to compound his guilt."
Says Cavuto: "It just bothered me. Like if someone makes fun of my kid at school, I'm going to track him down."
As for his swipe at Microsoft, company spokesman Tom Pilla says Microsoft executives have "great respect" for Cavuto and plan to appear on his show again. "It was unfortunate we had pretty tight schedules, and that sometimes prevents our execs from appearing on all the programs," he says.
Cavuto admits he runs the "very big risk" of appearing self-serving with such diatribes. "You won't see me flying off the handle very often. I try to have justifiable flying-off-the-handle sessions. If the world is looking for some calm, passive business anchor, I'm not your guy."
He is equally outspoken about the current spate of corporate meltdowns and accounting scams, often fencing with fellow anchor Bill O'Reilly, whom Cavuto likens to "a lovable loud uncle."
"His view is they're all crooks. Martha Stewart should be decorating a prison cell. It's just wrong. They're innocent till proven guilty. We can jump to conclusions -- that's very easy to do after WorldCom and Xerox and Enron and Global Crossing and Dynegy -- but there are thousands of companies out there. I meet with hundreds of CEOs. Most are decent men and women. They're not all crooks. But to read the press coverage is to assume they all are."
A New York City native whose sales-manager father moved the family to Georgia, Florida, Connecticut and Rhode Island, Cavuto went to St. Bonaventure University and originally set out to be a priest. After earning a graduate degree in public affairs at American University, he worked for the Indianapolis Star and Investment Age magazine.
Cavuto joined CNBC on the first day of its 1989 launch and was successful enough that he occasionally appeared on NBC's "Today" show. He stayed until 1996, when Ailes, his former boss at CNBC, lured him two blocks away to the fledgling Fox News Channel.
"I wanted somebody who could grow," Ailes says. "He wasn't the best known [at CNBC], but he was the best writer, the best on-air presence, the most likable.
"I remember sitting in my office and sweating bullets when he was interviewing Jack Welch," then the chairman of parent company General Electric, "and pinning Jack to the wall." Welch later called to say, "That Cavuto guy's really tough," Ailes says.
The move to Fox was something of a risk. "A lot of people thought I was crazy when I came here," Cavuto says. While CNBC matched Ailes's offer, "one thing they couldn't match was the management side and the fact that I could hire staff and create something from scratch," though he had no management experience.
For the first two years, says Cavuto, "the ratings were horrible. I wrote to 1,000 CEOs and investment types," asking them to come on a show whose network wasn't even carried in Manhattan. Some appeared only as a favor to Cavuto.
While Ailes remained patient, Cavuto faced a bigger crisis in 1997. He had already survived a bout with cancer nearly a decade earlier, and now he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. "My doctor said, 'You appear to be the unluckiest person on the planet.' "
Cavuto is stoical about his symptoms. "There are days I need a cane, or I can't walk around, or my eyesight is bad," he says. "Most of it is bearable. I've had hospital stays during the rare times that it's debilitating. It comes and goes. I can be good one day and bad the next.
"In a way it's worse than cancer because there's no cure for it. It's with you every day. There is no endgame. Even at my worst, I can still do my job -- for now.
"Even, God forbid, if I'm wheelchair-bound, I can still roll up to my desk. For people here, it's not an issue."
Says Ailes: "He's not a whiner. He's not a crybaby. He's handled it as bravely as I've ever seen anyone handle that kind of situation."
Why isn't his affliction more widely known? Cavuto says he works with multiple sclerosis and cancer organizations but that "I'm not out there with the celebrity-disease-of-the-week thing."
Cavuto would prefer to be noticed for his program, and while he doesn't get much publicity compared with other Fox hotshots, some media critics are taking notice. The Wall Street Journal recently cited Cavuto's "geeky incisiveness" in calling him "the sharpest business interviewer on TV today." And Cavuto has had no trouble getting heavyweight guests, including, in recent weeks, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt.
He seems unruffled by the controversies he creates, such as when he likened Martha Stewart and indicted ex-Tyco chief Dennis Kozlowski to Al Capone. Cavuto's point was not that they were rubbing people out but that they had gotten in trouble for relatively minor tax problems.
"One thing illness teaches you is, life is short," Cavuto says. "I want to stand for something."
Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company