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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

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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.”