Truth and Consequences
Meet Ashleigh Banfield. She spoke out about TV war coverage and paid a high price. Would she do it again?
Photograph by: Visko Hatfield
Whatever happened to Ashleigh Banfield? In an exclusive interview, the former MSNBC star reveals the true story of her banishment from the air after she questioned TV coverage of the war in Iraq. Upside? Married with two kids, living in Darien, and a new gig on, ironically, truTV.
“Ashleigh Banfield: Where have you been? No, I am not some fan commenting on your appearance. You were one of the most respected, most intelligent broadcast journalists around until you just, poof, disappeared.”
— Commentator on The Huffington Post, 1-17-08
Life is quieter now for Ashleigh Banfield. Not quiet. Just quieter. She lives in Darien with her husband, entrepreneur Howard Gould, and their two young boys, Jay Fischer Gould and Ridley Banfield Gould. Each weekday morning she takes the train to Grand Central Station, then walks a few short blocks to 600 Third Avenue, the home of truTV (better known by its old name of Court TV), where she hosts no fewer than three shows: Banfield & Ford: Courtside, featuring daily trial coverage with co-host Jack Ford; Hollywood Heat, a weekly spotlight on crime and celebrity; and Disorder in the Court, a special series featuring odd, often violent footage from the legal realm. So Ashleigh Banfield, at forty-one years old, is very much engaged in the television game. But the commentator quoted above was hardly alone in noticing a dramatic twist in her career.
One sweltering day last summer, Banfield welcomed me into her cool, pleasant office overlooking Third Avenue. She wore a sleeveless checked blouse and light peach-colored capris cinched at the waist with a paper clip: She had lost sixty pounds since the birth of Ridley in 2007, aimed to lose five more, and her clothes weren’t quite keeping up. She also wore her trademark rectangular eyeglasses, the object of countless remarks, pro and con, since her arrival on the national media scene in 2000. But not even her fiercest critic would deny what’s hidden behind those glasses: a pair of hypnotic green eyes.
She speaks rapidly, with refreshing candor, appearing to barrel along without an inner editor. “That’s in Tora Bora,” she says, noticing that my attention had gone to the photos on her bookshelf. One in particular showed her gripping a homemade Kalashnikov, surrounded by three bearded Afghans. “I slept in those clothes all the time, covered in dirt. Didn’t shower for two months,” she says.
The photos chart the arc of Banfield’s life and career. A tiny snapshot illustrates her modest beginnings, wearing shorts, hiking boots and a hunting jacket outside a rustic-looking CJBN station in Kenora, Ontario, just down the highway from her hometown of Winnipeg. Next to a tranquil family portrait stands a photo of Banfield with Yasser Arafat, and she laughs at the absurd juxtaposition. “I had a great interview with Arafat when he was under siege by the Israelis,” she says. “He was stuck in his compound, pinned down in Ramallah, in 2002. Running out of water, food, medicine, everything. We got the first interview with him. We beat Mike Wallace, who was in the air, flying from New York to Tel Aviv.”
In 2001 and 2002, when Banfield was working for MSNBC and its parent, NBC, she was among the most visible correspondents on television. She was sometimes said to be the heir to Katie Couric and, in a more distant future, Tom Brokaw. She had earned praise for her coverage of George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign and the recount debacle that followed. And she is well remembered for her live reporting from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. There she was, in the shadow of the North Tower as it peeled down out of the vivid blue. When she emerged she was ghostly with ash and dust.
“I looked up and saw the building coming down and was amazed by what I was witnessing, but I wasn’t aware that it was coming down on me, onto where I was standing,” Banfield recalls. “I began to run and I probably got only about five steps. I could feel my ears bending forward when the debris hit me from behind, and it was gritty, like the dust of glass.” She had a light shirt around her neck, and she tied it across her face in order to breathe. As debris blotted out the sky — “it turned to midnight” — she groped for the shelter of a vestibule she’d spied before the cloud overtook her. Banfield saw the shadows of two men, a World Trade Center security guard and an NYPD officer, walking dazedly outside, and she opened the door and pulled them to safety. Then she went on reporting.
Several days later MSNBC sent her to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where she worked twenty-two-hour days anchoring “A Region in Conflict.” A star was being born. Like anyone whose rise is seen to be meteoric, Banfield generated reams of commentary. “Ms. Banfield is widely considered within NBC News to be unusually gifted in front of the camera, with the sort of confidence and genuine delivery that is shared by an elite few in television news,” reported the New York Times.
Banfield’s versatility won special notice: She seemed equally comfortable behind a news desk in the States and trudging through the mountains of Khyber. Many saw her as a new kind of broadcast journalist, one who could leaven sober newscasts with dashes of youthful informality. Certainly Banfield was an exuberant on-air presence. Perhaps the only legitimate debate should have been whether she energized the proceedings — the majority opinion — or came on too strong. “Some people say I ‘break through the lens’,” she says. “With that, I’m sure, comes both a good and a bad response.”
In any case, Banfield emerged as a figure of controversy, a critical lightning rod. This was somewhat baffling: She was an anchor and a correspondent, not a bloviator in the manner of Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann. Disconcertingly, much talk concerned her looks. The eyeglasses alone covered a remarkable range, from the admiring (she made the airwaves safe for bespectacled women) to the salacious (she looked like a naughty librarian) to the unduly critical (the glasses were a prop to make her seem brainier). In preparing to go overseas after 9/11, she cut and darkened her blonde hair to tone down her Western appearance in largely Muslim territories. For this she was parodied on Saturday Night Live, joked about on The Daily Show, and ridiculed in the blogosphere.
“You would have thought Osama was her hairstylist,” remarks Itay Hod, a field producer for Banfield who now reports for CBS News on Logo. (Sexism undoubtedly factored in, though it’s hard to calibrate how much. Google suggests that Olbermann’s eyewear receives similar attention.)
Banfield’s reporting, too, drew controversy. Roger Ailes, head of competitor Fox News Channel, called her a “news actress.” When Ailes’s remark appeared in the Times in May 2002, NBC News President Neal Shapiro and MSNBC President Erik Sorenson responded with proper indignation: “Since September, Banfield has spent many weeks in various war zones, earning her stripes the same way Ailes credits Walter Cronkite with doing fifty and sixty years ago. Sure, the equipment’s better today, but the mud tastes the same and the cold is just as bracing.”
“I don’t think people realize what an amazing talent she is,” says Hod. “She would talk off the top of her head, no TelePrompTer, live, without stumbling once. Very few people can do that.” Moreover, he notes, the “Ashleigh walk and talks” that were her signature reporting method have become an industry standard.
For a moment in her office, Banfield appears to be far away, reliving the months abroad. “I’ve never worked harder in my life, nor been more physically affected and sickened by it. My crew and I, we contracted all sorts of physical ailments because of the arduous physical labor in trying to put together a live one-hour broadcast from a different location every night in a war zone.”
In retrospect, much Banfield criticism reflected a hardening of American attitudes — or a closing of American minds — after 9/11. Her interviews with Arab groups, extremist and otherwise, weren’t assailed for her performance, but for having taken place at all, as if Americans would rather clap their hands over their ears than listen to disagreeable or different viewpoints. “With friends like Banfield, who needs enemies?” asked a typical disparager. Her most virulent critic, the conservative talk-radio star Michael Savage, hosted a weekly TV show on Banfield’s own network. Incredibly, on the air, Savage called her “the mind-slut with a big pair of glasses” who “looks like she went from porno into reporting.”
Banfield objected. Her bosses did nothing.
One must recall the zealous tenor of those months in order to make sense of what happened to Banfield next. Over on Fox News, Bill O’Reilly was attracting 7 million viewers a night to his bold, blustery, and sometimes ugly opinion show The O’Reilly Factor — easily the biggest success in cable news. As the Iraq War drew near, O’Reilly struck an ever more belligerent tone. Dissenters were “bad Americans,” and “anyone who hurts this country in a time like this, well, let’s just say you will be spotlighted.” (Sean Hannity, another signature host with a huge following, often out-ranted O’Reilly.)
MSNBC, running third behind Fox and CNN, increasingly sought to mimic Fox’s patriotic overdrive. On February 24, 2003, less than a month before the invasion of Iraq, MSNBC dumped Phil Donahue, cable TV’s most visible dissenter, citing low ratings. It’s true that Donahue’s ratings never approached O’Reilly’s, but it’s also true that Donahue had risen to the top of the MSNBC heap, ahead of Hardball with Chris Matthews.
A leaked in-house memo told the real story: “Donahue represents a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war... He seems to delight in presenting guests who are antiwar, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration’s motives.” A nightmare scenario, the memo continued, would have Donahue’s show become “a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”
MSNBC replaced Donahue with the respected if self-described “extraordinarily conservative” Joe Scarborough. It also hired Savage. The turn was unmistakably hard right.
As Banfield surveyed developments like these, she began to question the state of cable news: Had the line between journalism and entertainment grown irreversibly blurred? Her unease deepened with the coverage of the Iraq War in March and April of 2003, which she thought celebrated the triumphs of war at the expense of the scarcely visible tragedies. These concerns formed the basis of a lecture Banfield delivered at Kansas State University on April 24, 2003, a couple of weeks after the fall of Baghdad. The lecture caused a furor — especially among her bosses at NBC, who publicly rebuked her: “We are deeply disappointed and troubled by her remarks, and will review her comments with her.”
Banfield had no inkling that her comments would severely damage her career. “Perhaps that was my naïveté,” she admits. “I try to put myself in my own shoes now: Would I have made the same speech [today] knowing what I know? I would like to say yes.”
What on earth did Banfield say? A review of the transcript shows the lecture was fairly tame, hardly the screed that headlines like “Banfield Lashes Out at Own Network” suggested. Her embedded colleagues had sent home extraordinary pictures, some of the best ever, Banfield observed; yet these pictures represented only a partial view of the war. “What didn’t you see? You didn’t see where those bullets landed. You didn’t see what happened when the mortar landed. A puff of smoke is not what a mortar looks like when it explodes, believe me. There are horrors that were completely left out of this war. So was this journalism or was this coverage?”
Banfield lamented the paucity of Arab and Muslim perspectives on our airwaves, an imbalance she had sought to redress. “As a journalist,” she told her audience, “I’m often ostracized just for saying these messages, just for going on television and saying, ‘Here’s what the leaders of Hezbollah are telling me, and here’s what the Lebanese are telling me, and here’s what the Syrians have said about Hezbollah.’ Like it or lump it, don’t shoot the messenger, but invariably the messenger gets shot.”
Banfield also decried “the way some cable news operators wrap themselves in the American flag and patriotism and go after a certain target demographic, which is very lucrative. You can already see the big hires on other networks, right-wing hires to chase after this effect.” This probably hit Banfield’s NBC bosses close to home. She mentioned their hiring of Savage and her concern that too many Americans bought into the loud, over-the-top rhetoric that is his specialty. (Savage’s TV career was brief. He was fired in 2003 after expressing the hope, on the air, that a purportedly gay caller would get AIDS and die.)
The most ironic of Banfield’s observations turned out to be this: “So many voices were silent in this war... Free speech is a wonderful thing, it’s what we fight for, but the minute it’s unpalatable we fight against it for some reason.”
Indeed, Banfield’s lecture was so unpalatable to her bosses — notably, to Neal Shapiro — that they exiled her for the duration of her contract. “I was office-less for ten months,” she says. “No phone, no computer. For ten months I had to report to work every day and ask where I could sit. If somebody was away I could use their desk. Eventually, after ten months of this, I was given an office that was a tape closet. They cleared the tapes out and put a desk and a TV in there, and a computer and phone. It was pretty blatant. The message was crystal clear.
“Yet they wouldn’t let me leave. I begged for seventeen months to be let out of my contract. If they had no use for me, let’s just part ways amicably — no need for payouts, just a clean break. And Neal wouldn’t allow it. I don’t know what his rationale was — perhaps he thought I would take what I felt was a very strong brand, and others felt was a very strong brand, to another network and make a success of it. Maybe that’s why he chose to keep me in a warehouse. I will never forgive him for his cruelty and the manner in which he decided to dispose of me.”
Shapiro, who left NBC in 2005 and now heads the PBS station Thirteen/WNET in New York, responded: “I don’t recall events the same way Ashleigh does, but I am glad she has found personal and professional success and I wish her all the best.”
Paradoxically, Banfield’s career was both made and unmade by the so-called War on Terror. Now the wheel has turned again on her reputation: Far from being remembered as a TV “it” girl, she is celebrated for having spoken plain truths at a passion-warped time. This reassessment didn’t really gain momentum until 2005, perhaps because more and more writers, chiefly but not exclusively liberal, began examining the news media’s apparent complacency in the run-up to the Iraq War. In his book Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush (2006), Eric Boehlert writes, “As for American correspondents, there was one who, during the height of the pro-war frenzy in the spring of 2003, stood up and asked serious questions about the MSM [mainstream media] war coverage. And for that, her career came to a screeching halt.” The political blogger Digby wrote in 2007, “I made terrible fun of Banfield. She seemed to me to be the personification of the infotainment industrial complex... But I was wrong about her.”
Curiously, Banfield’s professional crisis may have hustled forth personal happiness. One day during her exile, Banfield was walking her dogs on Central Park West and met Howard Gould. “We had the classic New York story,” she says. “He had two pugs and I had two Westies, and we came around the corner and the dogs got tangled up, and that was it.” Gould recalls, “It was late at night, and I looked at her and said, ‘I think you’re somebody famous, but I don’t know who.’” Gould was a CNN watcher, and perhaps for this reason never really saw Banfield through the lens of celebrity. “I was enamored right off the bat,” he says. “She’s beautiful, brilliant and fun. Her looks and personality are off the chart. And she’s a daring girl who has traveled the world and has lots of interesting things to talk about. What’s not to be attracted to?”
Banfield and Gould married in July 2004, aboard a wooden yacht in Lake of the Woods, an idyllic region of northern Ontario where the Banfield clan vacationed in Ashleigh’s youth. So the jobless interlude turned out to be an important one. “I needed the downtime to catch my breath, to breathe, and actually focus on me for the first time in twenty years. Meet somebody. Marry him. Have two kids. It was never in the cards before.”
Gould, who cofounded Equator Environmental, a global carbon credit trading company, is a great-great grandson of the railroad financier Jay Gould. Though the Gould family ties to New York are generations old, Howard, who grew up in Manhattan, decided he wanted to raise his own children out in the leafy suburbs. “Ultimately our quest took us to Connecticut, and once we hit Darien, there was just no question,” Banfield says. “The first house I went into was the house we ended up buying in Darien. It’s home.”
When Banfield returned to television in 2005, as a guest host on Court TV, she was immediately Swift-boated by the past. “Somebody called. I won’t say what magazine. They called and said, ‘We’re doing a story, we had a tip that you sprinkled World Trade Center dust all over yourself to pretend that you were somehow in the midst of the crisis when it happened.’ I felt sick to my stomach. They said, ‘We’re going with the story, we have an unimpeachable source who said they swear they saw you sprinkle yourself with dust in order to inject yourself into the story.’ It was shocking. Just sickening.”
Viewers never knew that Banfield lost two friends in the Trade Center attacks and sought help for post-traumatic stress disorder, whose symptoms include bouts of uncontrollable weeping. “People fail to realize that journalists are people, and whoever was caught down there lived through a calamity,” she says. “The magazine never went through with the story — I don’t know why — but they stirred up a lot of very, very painful emotions, to say the least.”
In January 2006 Court TV paired Banfield with Jack Ford, who is widely considered to be one of the best legal experts in television. “Jack is brilliant. He’s a Yale law professor, a former prosecutor, former defense attorney, former anchorman, and all-around phenomenal guy. He’s the most magnanimous person in this business by a long shot.” Banfield is the only nonlawyer in truTV’s daytime lineup. “Part of her value is that she’s incredibly smart,” says Ford. “I’ve joked with her, not entirely facetiously, that she knows more about the law than most lawyers do.” Yet it’s her perspective as a nonlawyer that Ford says is most valuable. “She brings to the show the kind of curiosity a juror would bring. Sometimes us lawyers don’t think to ask or answer the basic questions that are most important to viewers.” Ford adds, “She’s an absolute delight to work with. We’ve become good friends.”
Banfield may be less visible than she once was, but these days she beams contentment; her job and family existing together in a neat, happy radius. And she seems genuinely engrossed by that great American news beat, crime. If history is any guide, her destiny may yet spin out a few more tangles. “I know this is my lot,” she says. “If I want to be successful in this business, I’m going to have to take it on the chin and cope with it. This business is not for the thin-skinned, and I don’t know that I have the thickest of skins.”