Friday, November 13, 2009

The star will rise again: Ashleigh Banfield bounces back

TVNewser reported that Ashleigh Banfield will be joining ABC News next year. Banfield, who’s been an anchor at truTV (formerly CourtTV) since 2005, is expected to join the network sometime early next year.

Those facts won’t mean anything to you if you’ve got no sense of cable TV’s chaotic, volatile history, or if you don’t have an appreciation of how, in cable television like the rest of life, what goes around comes around.

In 2000 and 2001, nothing was denied Ashleigh Banfield, MSNBC’s rising star; the Canadian native combined a whip-smart, seemingly caffeinated persona; thorough preparation; and an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time (or at least be able to get there in a hurry) into a franchise, a status as one of MSNBC’s true early breakthroughs.

That uncanny ability showed itself again on Sept. 11, 2001, with Banfield in the wrong place at a horrible time: in the shadow of the Second World Trade Center tower when the second jet struck, and transformed the United States forever.

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In the hours and days of coverage that followed, Banfield was more or less automatic: interviewing, reporting, consoling, bearing true witness from the epicenter of the story of our time. Banfield would go on to distinguish herself as a war correspondent (filing reports from Afghanistan and Pakistan) and as the anchor of one of MSNBC’s prime-time shows.

The golden child of MSNBC felt the chill of corporate disapproval shortly after delivering the Landon Lecture at Kansas State University on April 24, 2003. Speaking about news organizations and their journalistic and financial agendas in the wake of 9/11, Banfield said:
”There is another whole phenomenon that's come about from this war. Many talk about it as the Fox effect, the Fox news effect. I know everyone of you has watched it. It's not a dirty little secret. A lot of people describe Fox as having streamers and banners coming out of the television as you're watching it cover a war. But the Fox effect is very concerning to me.

“I'm a journalist and I like to be able to tell the story as I see it, and I hate it when someone tells me I'm one-sided. It's the worst I can hear. Fox has taken so many viewers away from CNN and MSNBC because of their agenda and because of their targeting the market of cable news viewership, that I'm afraid there's not a really big place in cable for news. Cable is for entertainment, as it's turning out, but not news.

“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 and patriotism and go after a certain target demographic, which is very lucrative. You can already see the effects, you can already see the big hires on other networks, right wing hires to chase after this effect, and you can already see that flag waving in the corners of those cable news stations where they have exciting American music to go along with their war coverage.

“Well, all of this has to do with what you've seen on Fox and its successes. So I do urge you to be very discerning as you continue to watch the development of cable news, and it is changing like lightning. Be very discerning because it behooves you like it never did before to watch with a grain of salt and to choose responsibly, and to demand what you should know. …”

Banfield was roundly believed to have been criticizing NBC's coverage of the Iraq war; shortly after the speech, she was publicly rebuked by NBC brass and isolated at headquarters.

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“I was office-less for ten months,” she told New Canaan-Darien Magazine in Jaunary 2009. “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. …”

Banfield was kicked to the curb by MSNBC in the same mad, breathless reflexive rush to the colors that held sway at networks and TV stations big and small in the frightful months after 9/11. That same instinct for obeying the nation’s rightward political tilt led to the talk-show veteran Phil Donahue being fired that February from his MSNBC program, for being too liberal at the wrong time.

So Banfield’s return to television news does double duty. It’s of course a chance to stick a finger in the eye of MSNBC for banishing her for journalistically speaking truth to power.

Banfield also makes the pending “new ABC News” lineup even more interesting than it was going to be already. Diane Sawyer was tapped in July to replace the retiring Charles Gibson as ABC News anchorman — and become the network’s first sole permanent female anchor, and the industry’s second (behind CBS’s Katie Couric).

Now with Banfield aboard, what’s taking shape at ABC may be a real ground-up change in its old-boy old guard, the same one that permeates the industry generally, and almost certainly at ABC, too.

Here’s to Banfield, and to Sawyer breaking new ground at one of the Dinner Hour News shows. Maybe. What other examples of a commitment to diversity will Sawyer & Co. be offering, besides themselves? If this is a realignment of the usual media visibilities, it’ll be very interesting to see how far it goes.
Image credits: Banfield: MSNBC. ABC logo: © 2009 ABC.

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