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So What Do You Do, Ashleigh Banfield, Court TV Anchor?

A star of NBC's 9/11 reporting discusses the high cost of free speech and being a non-lawyer on Court TV.

- November 28, 2007
There are many cautionary tales in the news business, but to some Ashleigh Banfield's seemingly meteoric rise and subsequent and self-described "banishment" from network news is a particularly chilling one. Having become one of NBC's most visible faces and resonant voices in the wake of 9/11, Banfield went from reporting the headlines to making them and in doing so almost destroyed her career. Shortly after the attacks, she was criticized by some when she dyed her blonde hair brunette for a trip to Afghanistan (Something that still makes Banfield bristle). Then, in the spring of 2003, her remarks made during a lecture at Kansas State University about what she believed were the media's mistakes in their coverage of the Iraq war seemed to seal her fate. She told her audience: "I'm hoping that I will have a future in news in cable, but not the way some cable news operators wrap themselves in the American flag ... 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." Her statements angered her bosses at NBC, who, says Banfield, exacted punishment by making her sit on the sidelines until her contract ran out.

Today, Banfield is fighting her way back from her perch at Court TV where she offers the "man on the street" perspective among the network's legal eagles. While she is no longer trudging through war zones, Banfield is still waging her own battles to be heard ("women 40 and over, unite!") and remains unbowed about her outspokenness and her desire to carve out a career on her own terms.

"Even my failures I look at as successes because I am not gone," she says.

Name: Ashleigh Banfield
Position: Co-host, Banfield and Ford: Courtside; host, Hollywood Heat
Resume: Joined Court TV as a substitute host in July 2005; Anchor/correspondent for MSNBC and NBC News correspondent from 2000 until 2004; anchor at KDFW, a Fox affiliate in Dallas; freelanced as an associate producer for ABC's World News Tonight. Began her television career in 1988 as a photographer/researcher/reporter in Ontario, Canada.
Birthdate: December 29, 1967
Hometown: Winnipeg, Manitoba
Education: BA in political studies & French from Queens University in Ontario
Marital status: Married to Howard Gould, founder of Equator Environmental, since July 2004; two sons Jay Fischer Gould ('Fischer'), 2, ("Named after the famous robber baron Jay Gould who is his great -great -great grandfather") and Ridley Banfield Gould, six months.
First section of Sunday Times: "If I get to read anything these days which is rare, that would be Tom Friedman."
Favorite television show: "The Daily Show. It is clearly the best production on television now and ever. I never miss it. When I was on maternity leave, I Tivoed every single one."
Guilty pleasure: "That would have to be Howard Stern. [Laughs] I have admired Howard Stern's resilience. There's not a lot of other stuff I admire about his content, but there's something about Howard Stern and his perseverance in a very difficult industry. He does tickle me in certain ways with humor. Obviously, he's very over the top and very inappropriate most of the time, but I do find him intriguing. My husband and I have outfitted the cars with Sirius Satellite Radio because of him."
Last book read: 1776 by David McCullough. I literally have one more chapter to go. I hate to say it, but I'm reading it alongside The Great American Citizenship Quiz because I'm prepping for the test."

How would you say you've gotten to where you are?
I would have to say sheer perseverance because this is not the friendliest of industries --- it's not for anyone without a thick elephant skin. I just truly love what I do and if you don't love what you do, you're going to be at work every day. Because I love what I do, I've never worked a day in my life.

What do you consider your best work on-air?
It's a tough question because some of the best things I've done have been the worst things that have happened. Clearly, 9/11 would have to be some of the best work that I've done because I was working without a template and that was very difficult. Having nearly been victimized by the north tower, it was difficult to remain composed and be informative.

How long were you on air?
Nine days.

What was that like?
It was riveting in every sense of the word. It was troubling. It was the most complex moment in my career in terms of trying to decipher A) what was happening moment by moment and B) what was happening to us as a nation. We underwent this metamorphosis overnight and I think we were all trying to understand our new reality. It was difficult to find that new reality while you were traipsing around on a moonscape. I was thoroughly confused for nine days in so many ways.

One of the most iconic images from the newscasts at Ground Zero was when you were interviewing that woman with the baby and a building started to come down behind you. How long did that haunt your dreams?
Most people remember that because it was televised but there was so much more that wasn't. They all haunt me equally. I lost two friends that day. [Sighs] It all is a sad smear in my life. I try not think about it very often. I think about it when I have to on anniversaries and during interviews. For the most part, I try to avoid it. Because honest to God, I don't think anyone of us who ever stepped foot down there will not have a quiver in our voice when we try to recall those events. It will always remain a pit in my stomach. It seems like decades ago and yet it was yesterday in so many respects.

In the months following 9/11 you were being touted as one of NBC rising stars. The New York Post even mentioned you as possible successor to Katie Couric's. Then, just as quickly, it seemed as if you dropped out of sight. What happened?
The Iraq war started to develop and I gave a very controversial speech at Kansas State [University] about the press's responsibility in covering international affairs. I sent out a cautionary note to all my colleagues covering this conflict and chastened the press corps not to wave the banner and cover warfare in a jingoistic way. It didn't sit well with my employers at NBC -- who are no longer there. I think they overacted. I was banished. I sat in the outfield for a long time. I think it's cause célèbre today for everyone to realize the mistakes of many -- not just the media and the administration -- in the Iraq war and the ensuing quagmire. At the time it was either bold or stupid or both. I know now the cost [of speaking out], but it would never have made a difference.

When did you officially leave NBC?
I left in 2004 -- a few months after my contract expired. I was very much in the warehouse while my contract petered out.

Looking back on that time, what were the biggest lessons you learned?
On one hand you could say, "Keep your mouth shut while our nation is embroiled in war," but I don't think that was a responsible way to behave. If I have been fortunate enough to have risen to level in this business where people would actually listen to me, then I think I have a duty to convey all truths that I encounter. I felt it was my duty at the time. I was a war correspondent who had seen that the hearts and minds of the Arab world were not that easy to win. I had seen that the street in the Arab world were on fire and angry and that smashing campaigns may not be as simple as the headlines were making them out to be. I felt it was my duty to speak up. Very few people are fortunate enough to walk through countries like Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia and I had seen them all. I had spoken to many on the street. I felt I had a solid editorial grounding for saying the things I said. Despite the enormous cost to me professionally, personally, and emotionally, I would not have changed a thing.

I love it when people say I was some brave, courageous reporter. I wasn't, I was just shit scared.

How did you wind up at Court TV?
[Former Court TV head] Henry Schleiff and I were talking at a social event about the network and he recommended I come in and talk to him. I never thought I'd be doing legal [reporting] -- I don't know why. I've done every beat in the journalism book, but I hadn't done legal. I thought it was only the domain of lawyers -- and it is. Everybody here is a lawyer but me. [Laughs] But it turns out there is space for inquiring minds among the attorneys here and I bring a different perspective to a lot of the interviews and the questioning here. It's the perspective of the man on the street who doesn't have a Juris Doctorate. Thank God for Henry. He recognized that I actually could prevail in this extremely difficult environment.

I think there's some confusion over the re-branding of the network. Court TV will officially become Tru TV in January. Will your responsibilities change as a result of the relaunch? What does it mean to you?
You're talking to the wrong girl. [Laughs] I was out on Halloween trick or treating with my babies when all of that information started getting passed around.

There was a recent story in Elle that deconstructed various female anchors and reporters' on-air look. The piece made a particular point of saying you went from blonde to brunette to boost your credibility. Care to comment?
That's wrong and extremely short-sighted. If they had actually done some research or given me a call, I went from blonde to brunette because I was going to Afghanistan. This is nine days after terrorists had just killed 3,000 of my neighbors. There was a whole different dynamic playing out in those days. I love it when people say I was some brave, courageous reporter. I wasn't, I was just shit scared. [Laughs]. Sorry to say I was absolutely terrified about the assignment. It was the No. 1 refused assignment in the history of NBC news.

Even the producer assigned to go with me changed her mind and backed out after her children asked her not to go. I started to worry about all the time I'd spent in the Middle East prior to 9/11. What a tall beacon I appeared to be with my blonde hair. All of sudden the dynamics of the world had changed and the Arab terrorists were looking to kill us no matter what. I didn't want to stand out and give them the upper hand. I'll tell you something -- as much flack as I took -- it all ended the day Daniel Pearl died. No one ever said a word about me and my effort to blend in as a journalist in Pakistan and Afghanistan after that because they recognized that it was true. There were bounties on our heads. There was a $40,000 bounty on all American journalists heads as we were traveling from Jalalabad to Kabul. I had to hire an army of Muhajadin soldiers -- 25 of them with rocket propelled grenades.

Did you personally or the network hire them?
I did, myself. I did with my producer, photographer, and audio engineer. The four of us negotiated a small Mujadine army to the governor of Nagarhar Province in Afghanistan to protect us. It was bad. This was a very ugly place that we were going and it remains an ugly place. So I think it was very short sighted of whoever wrote that. I never had a problem with my credibility. If there are people out there who think that credibility comes with hair color, that's their issue, not mine.

I seem to remember your choice of eyewear got a lot of attention at the time as well. Did that bug you?
I find it a fascinating study of inequality on the air because men have been wearing glasses forever and there's nary a headline published about that.

Is there anything that women in positions of power on air can realistically do about the double standard?
I'm no idiot. I know that I sleep in the bed that I made. I understand that women are scrutinized at a level that is not commensurate with men but, there are times when it becomes ridiculous. There are times when it is obviously overkill. I think eventually it will wane. I hope it happens in my lifetime, but I don't know.

One of the biggest challenges women at all levels face is juggling a career with motherhood. How do you do it?
It's tough. I had a great conversation last night with Elizabeth Vargas. She also has two young boys and is trying to juggle network responsibilities. We both recognize we have had to scale back our ambitions and our endeavors. We make these choices voluntarily. We recognize that this career isn't going anywhere. That television business isn't leaving and we're not leaving it, we're just repositioning our strategies; we're changing our timeframes and our timelines. Thank God women over 40 are still welcome in this business. I think there was a time long ago when you weren't. I bristled every time this summer as I was covering Phil Spector's case that the defense would bring up Lana Clarkson was "40, a B-Movie actress and her career was over." I bristled every single time because I am turning 40 and I think my career is getting better. I think with every year, I get better and I think that's reflected in the assignments I'm given.

I can't tell you how many women I interview for this column take the fifth on the birthday question.
Not me, man. I have openly said I was 190 pounds on the on-air [when I was pregnant] and I've often openly said I am turning 40 and I wish more people would do it. I wear it like a badge of honor. I've been in this business for 20 years and I always felt like I didn't know enough. Recently, I had an epiphany that with every year I age, I get smarter and there's nothing better in this business than that. By the way, I'm not 190 anymore. [Laughs] I'm working on it, but it's not easy. [Laughs] I'm doing the countdown on the air. This week I hit 140.

What do you consider your greatest success?
Oh, my boys Fischer and Ridley. I can't believe I pulled it off. Often I'll look at photographs of them and think, "Whose kids are those?" [Laughs]

What about your biggest disappointment?
My biggest disappointment in life and work has been what we talked about earlier -- the reaction to what I felt was a legitimate point of view at the commencement of the war on terror and the ramifications I suffered. I don't think that's the way Americans truly operate. I'm so thrilled to be in this country by choice. I am taking my citizenship exam in six months and will be waving that flag and swearing in with so much pride. I think most people who are here by birthright have no idea how special it really is for those who have to really work for it. That was a biggest disappointment when my free speech cost me so much.

Do you have a five-year plan?
I've always looked at the 25-year plan -- especially in this business. If you set aside your plan I think you'll be regularly disappointed. I have been on as many dips as peaks -- if not more. I look at Regis [Philbin]. Regis really hit it in his 70s. If I manage to do it before I'm 75, I'll be thrilled. I've always looked every step along the way as a success. Even my failures I look at as successes because I'm not gone. Every time I fail, I look at it as a positive if I'm not completely wiped out. If I didn't have that perspective I would have been wiped off the face of broadcasting about a dozen times by now.

Do you have a motto?
I do have one. I think people should have one, if not then a song. [Laughs] I keep it on my desktop, too. It's "People who expect to be ignorant and free expect what never was and never will be." I always have felt that is something we all should live by not just journalists. It's an American mantra. Especially at this time -- we're at a turning point in this country and we need to understand the value of being American. If we don't find the courage in ourselves to seek truth and to pass it on, then I'm not sure that we're doing our founding fathers any justice.

Diane Clehane is a contributing editor to FishbowlNY and TVNewser. She writes the Lunch at Michael's column.

[This article has been edited for length and clarity.]

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