Truth and Consequences
Meet Ashleigh Banfield. She spoke out about TV war coverage and paid a high price. Would she do it again?
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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.”