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.
Born and raised in Canada, Banfield came to Dallas in 1995, hired by KDFW Channel 4 to co-host its local morning show. By the time Fox purchased the station in 1997, Banfield was co-anchoring the nightly news at 5 and 9. Hers was a hipper, more irreverent style, a clear appeal to the younger demographic the station was seeking. "I am not your average anchorwoman," Banfield says.
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."
Three weeks before her final broadcast in October 1999, she began wearing glasses. Although she claims she needed them for reading the TelePrompTer, some at the station were suspicious. "The story going around is that when she sent out her résumé tapes, one of the recipients asked, 'How do we know you are a serious journalist?'" relates a source at Fox 4. "Then the glasses appeared."
Conventional newsroom wisdom would counsel against eyeglasses. "If you are going to wear them, at least make them funky and noticeable like Ashleigh's," says Dallas communication and image consultant Lisa LeMaster. "If it is a gimmick, at least it's a great gimmick."
"We are rolling through D.C., folks, in our rolling truck cam," explains Banfield, seated comfortably in the MSNBC van. "Let's switch to the roof-cam guys...This is the place where Marine One [presidential helicopter] will be landing, and the reason I am telling you this is because President Clinton is due to land any minute now. We have been expecting him...Oh gosh, I am just getting news. Breaking news, folks!" Her voice takes on a blushing schoolgirl quality. "Marine One has been delayed until 8:40 Eastern Time."
If breaking news at MSNBC is at times less than groundbreaking, it's not for want of trying. Banfield and the station are searching for ways to reproduce the breakaway success it achieved during the presidential election and its aftermath. Not content with a bunch of experts detailing the historical nuances of the electoral and legal process, MSNBC took its reporters and crews to the streets.
"We were in the action rather than the studio," Banfield says. "We turned our cameras loose and showed every aspect of the story rather than just describing it through talking heads."
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For more than five weeks, the nation was gripped in a story of epic proportions whose cliffhanger ending would determine no less than the leader of the free world. And there was Ashleigh Banfield in Austin, confronting Bush campaign chairman Don Evans as he filled up his car with gas and spoke to his son on a cell phone. There was Ashleigh Banfield in Tallahassee, demonstrating how easy it was to fling a hanging chad from a punch-card ballot. There was Ashleigh Banfield lost in a sea of campaign supporters, only a legal pad and her comic timing to work her way through the masses. In this low tide for network newscasters who recklessly rushed to judgment, Banfield and her bunch acquitted themselves mightily.
The serious face time she netted bestowed upon her an instant celebrity. She seemed as much a part of the drama as James Baker or Warren Christopher. "Reporters are becoming characters in the story because the electronic medium delivers the event and the news coverage simultaneously," explains Barry Vacker, professor of media and culture at Southern Methodist University. "The distinction between the reporter and the event is breaking down."
Suddenly, everyone was talking about "the girl in the glasses." Banfield was featured in a People magazine article; the cheesy TV news magazine Extra declared her one of the sexiest news anchors in America. Banfield even appeared on the Tonight Show, seemingly relaxed and self-assured as she jested with Jay Leno.
"All her lights are shining right now, but I still find it interesting," says a former Fox newsroom staffer. "There is a struggle in the broadcast industry to find just the right blend of entertainment and news. For MSNBC, Ashleigh Banfield may be the answer to that struggle."