Monday, November 16, 2009
ABC: Ashleigh Banfield's Comeback
If you've read Dead Star Twilight, you know that for several months following the attacks of 9/11 I was the producer of Ashleigh Banfield's nightly news show on MSNBC, A Region in Conflict. Every weeknight, Ashleigh would be live somewhere in Afghanistan -- often by videophone, which at that time was the height of cutting-edge technology -- covering the early days of the war from right there on ground. In my book, which deals with that tumultuous period in my own life, I go on record as saying that Ashleigh is a bit of a pain-in-the-ass -- but to be honest this should come as a surprise to no one, as the good ones often are and, also for the record, Ashleigh Banfield is pretty damn good; she's a dedicated, tough-as-nails journalist who was always more interested in getting the story and turning it into something terrific on-air than she was in the political machinations going on behind the scenes that could make or break her career. Of course at least part of the reason for this is that, at the time, it seemed like she didn't have a thing in the world to worry about as far as her place at NBC was concerned: Her star was unquestionably on the rise and none other than ex-NBC News President Neal Shapiro himself had lip cramps from personally blowing so much smoke up her ass.
But like all passionate love affairs, the one between Ashleigh Banfield and NBC eventually came to a dramatic and icy end.
There are those behind the scenes who would've told you that Ashleigh's occasionally, ahem, "abrasive" interactions with her co-workers played a role in how easy it was for NBC to marginalize and finally oust her. More than a few staffers said under their breath that Ashleigh's belief in her own hype as far as how management felt about her -- in other words, her willingness to actually trust guys like Shapiro when they told her that she was the newly anointed Golden Child of NBC News -- caused her to forget that no matter who you are or how indispensable you think you might be, it's a good idea to always have friends in the rank and file who have your back. Quite a few people thought that by the time Ashleigh was seeing the writing on the wall, she'd already alienated a good portion of the production and middle-management staff -- people who have a direct line to the enlightened beings in the Adminisphere and at the very least could've spoken up on her behalf (not that it likely would've done any good).
But being occasionally arrogant or difficult to work with -- and keep in mind it's been years since I've even spoken to Ashleigh so I'm more than willing to give her the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the whether or not she's mellowed with age -- isn't a reason to let someone go, certainly not in the world of television news. So what did the woman who once seemed to be the heir apparent to the most famous faces in network news do to reap the scorn of the NBC News management de Medici Family that had once been her personal and professional benefactors?
Well, she did something that was incredibly ballsy and brave -- as well as, I believe, necessary -- but shockingly stupid and naive if she was interested in keeping her job: She spoke out against the cable and network news coverage of the war in Iraq. And she didn't do it, oh say, last year, when enough time had safely passed and it officially became not only acceptable but downright fashionable for the media to engage in a lot of hand-wringing and navel-gazing over their mistakes during both the lead-up to and the first few days of the war, since it was too late to do anything about it anyway; no, she did it in front of an audience at Kansas State University in April of 2003 -- just about a month after the first bombs fell on Baghdad and smack in the middle of that shameful little period when not cheerleading or at the very least acquiescing to the Bush administration's misguided Middle Eastern bloodlust would get you branded as some kind of traitor.
At the core of Ashleigh's lecture was the question of whether those covering the war were truly living up to their responsibilities as journalists, or were instead just dutifully relaying the information given to them by the military and taking the White House at its word. She also decried the fact that the American people weren't being shown the realities of 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? There is a grand difference between journalism and coverage, and getting access does not mean you're getting the story, it just means you're getting one more arm or leg of the story. And that's what we got, and it was a glorious, wonderful picture that had a lot of people watching and a lot of advertisers excited about cable news. But it wasn't journalism... I'm not so sure that we in America are hesitant to do this again, to fight another war, because it looked like a glorious and courageous and so successful terrific endeavor, and we got rid of a... dictator, we got rid of a monster, but we didn't see what it took to do that."
More than simply taking aim at laissez faire journalism, she also pointed out what she saw as a dangerous trend in TV news coverage:
"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.
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...
We hired somebody on MSNBC recently named Michael Savage. Some of you may know his name already from his radio program. He was so taken aback by my daring to speak with Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade about why they do what they do, why they're prepared to sacrifice themselves for what they call a freedom fight and we call terrorism, he was so taken aback that he chose to label me as a slut on the air. And that's not all, as a porn star. And that's not all, as an accomplice to the murder of Jewish children."
Worth mentioning is that MSNBC's still-unfathomable experiment with putting Michael Savage on the air at an outlet that carries the NBC News pedigree lasted all of four months. That's how long it took for Savage to tell a gay caller to his show that he should "get AIDS and die." Yeah, MSNBC couldn't have seen that coming.
Needless to say, Ashleigh's lecture did in fact get her immediately branded a traitor -- to NBC News. By NBC News. Following her appearance at Kansas State, the girl-in-the-glasses who had been on a meteoric trajectory quickly became a falling star. Ashleigh said in an interview earlier this year that Neal Shapiro basically stopped returning her phone calls and MSNBC took away her desk, forcing her to spend ten months squatting at whatever open computer terminal happened to be available on a given day. (Once again, if you read Dead Star Twilight, you know that I mention the humiliating trials of being a "newsroom nomad," basically an MSNBC employee not lucky enough to have an assigned desk.) Ashleigh eventually wound up with an office that was, literally, Office Space-style, a tape closet. When she realized what was going on -- that her career was pretty much dead at NBC News -- she begged to be let out of her contract. But NBC -- remember, the network that's willing to choke its own prime time lineup to death rather than let Jay Leno go to the competition -- refused to allow her to leave. They made her stay put, gathering dust, for a year-and-a-half.
Since finally leaving NBC, Ashleigh's been an anchor on Court TV (now TruTV), which although certainly keeping her in the public eye is a far cry from being an anchor and war correspondent for NBC. But television news has a short memory -- especially when weighed against the prospect of acquiring real talent and marketability -- and so it was really only a matter of time before we saw a headline like this:
TVNewser: Ashleigh Banfield's Next Stop: ABC News/11.13.09
The story written by Chris Ariens, who's a former MSNBC senior producer, co-worker of mine and all-around good guy, breaks the news that Ashleigh Banfield will be joining the ABC staff next year; the hire comes just as she's being cut from the TruTV roster by Time Warner.
To be honest, it'll be great to see her back on the air for a major news network. Whether her frustration with the coverage of the Iraq war was borne at least partially from feeling personally slighted (most overseas reporters will tell you that nothing pisses them off more than being pushed aside in the live shot lineup, often by an executive producer in a comfy office somewhere far away from sand, bullets and bodies, so that extra time can be given to, say, the 110th JonBenet Ramsey story of the day) or truly an act of journalistic defiance, what she said needed to be said. She was right either way.
Bottom line: It took guts to say what she said when she said it.
We could use more journalists like that these days.
Welcome back, Ash.