By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Ashleigh Banfield stands demurely in front of a police barricade in Washington, D.C., scratching her face as a TV camera captures the moment live. Caught unaware, she adjusts her signature glasses, the source of some local gossip and much national notoriety since her rise last year from Fox 4 anchorwoman to MSNBC cable news correspondent. The six seconds of dead air seem like an eternity until Banfield suddenly recovers. "I am sorry, but I don't have the benefit of hearing the commercials when we are on location," she tells her viewers. "I apologize."
No doubt you forgive her. Her perky enthusiasm--a studied synthesis of sexy and smart--makes you also forget. ("I hate it when people call me perky," she later says.)
"We have set up in front of the Blair House, where Bush will be staying," she continues, broadcasting the play-by-play from Washington the Wednesday before Inauguration Day. "Earlier today, I was following the Senate confirmation hearings of General Colin Po-ward...Powell." You forgive this flub as well. This is live TV, and Banfield is so breezy; the camera loves her. Quickly, she races through the other stories of the day: Christie Todd Whitman's less than stellar confirmation hearing; a Midland, Texas, goodbye to its Stetson-wearing favorite son.
"Let's move on to where I am right now. There is a very exciting feeling in the air." Banfield squeezes her gloved fists, mimicking that excitement. "Two presidents are essentially going to be in the Capitol later tonight. The Clintons are not here just yet...Bush is here..."
Even when she is enthusiastic about nothing, you don't find her uncool. Finally, she runs out of either steam or copy. "Back to you, Lester."
Lester Holt is Banfield's no-nonsense straight man, who broke onto the national scene using the same dramatic device that Banfield did: the presidential election. For 10 months, Banfield had been whiling away in relative cable obscurity. Then came "Indecision 2000," as Banfield calls it, and she's been getting meaningful nonstop airtime ever since. No longer is she just a former Fox 4 anchorwoman who knew what she wanted and went for it. Suddenly, everyone is looking for the right metaphor to capture her celebrity: At 33, she is "Girl in the Glasses," the newest Scud Muffin, the latest media phenom to be discovered during a national soap opera. Ted Koppel, Wolf Blitzer, Matt Drudge, watch out.
Although the station refuses to comment on its former employees, "I will say this," explains Fox news director Maria Barrs, "Ashleigh is a smart and talented person. She is attractive and quick-witted."
No doubt she had a good grasp of current events; she could handle news, both hard and soft, with the requisite degree of seriousness and charm. What's more, she came across as a real person who could think on her feet, not some sit-down stiff whose broadcast personality was limited to a couple of limp lines of happy talk at the end of each program. But to some, she seemed more interested in developing a TV persona than any credentials as a serious journalist. And her willful temperament--a dug-in defiance to have things her way--did not make her the most popular anchor in the newsroom.
"From the get-go, you knew she was ambitious with a capital A," says one former Fox news staffer. "So what's wrong with that? We are all ambitious. Some people just have better luck at it than others."
As either luck or Banfield would have it, her persona began to saturate the media--TV, radio, and print. Blurbs about her could be repeatedly found in the gossip columns of The Dallas Morning News. In Cigar Aficionado magazine, she unmasked herself as one of several news-anchoring cigar smokers. Often, she would call into a local radio show, talking on air to the same DJs who attended late-night parties at her Deep Ellum loft.
"At 2 in the morning, after the party broke up, Ashleigh would invite everyone over to her place," recalls Tim Rogers, the morning drive DJ for Merge 93.3 FM. "She was the kind of person who was always ready to go, and I mean that in the nicest possible sense...She just enjoyed being seen."
Perhaps she garnered the most press coverage when she began singing with Tommy Hyatt and the Haywires, belting out cover songs for the Deep Ellum group. Banfield felt her bosses at Fox were less than supportive of her late-night vocal stylings. "I was stunned," she says. "The general manager [Kathy Saunders] asked me not to sing after I got some bad press about it in the Observer. After a couple of weeks, she changed her mind."
Although she never felt close with Saunders, their relationship, says Banfield, had nothing to do with her decision to leave the station. "Fox wasn't offering me enough money to stay, and they wanted a no-exit contract. So it was time to move on."