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No expression allowed: The ballyhoo over Banfield
May 13, 2003
by Tresa McBee

We love it when someone falls. Gets a little uppity, a little big for her britches. A little too honest.

Like when Ashleigh Banfield recently expressed opinions, and her subsequent reprimand by NBC caught headlines with the active verbs so encouraged by English teachers and resume writers: lashed out, ripped, attacked, blamed. Very active. But not entirely accurate. Tone and context do matter.

Banfield got in trouble following a speech she recently gave at Kansas State University in a lecture series where guests are invited to reflect on important events. She is the (formerly) rising young reporter who soared to national prominence after racing to cover the 9/11 attacks as the second tower fell and reporting throughout the day covered in ash. Not long after, the previously blonde-highlighted Banfield was reporting from the Middle East, a head scarf covering her new dark brown hair. She traveled that region, was given her own MSNBC show, lost her own MSNBC show and is now merely a regular correspondent. The size of your TV show really does matter.

To read reports of Banfield's KSU speech, delivered in the informal style for which she's known, one imagines she railed nonstop against every hand that does or could possibly feed her. Listening to her speech, which I did online, reveals comments far less sensational and controversial, if not always politic.

The ballyhoo centered mostly on her opinion, colored by time covering Afghanistan and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, that American coverage of the Iraq war didn't reflect war's gruesome reality; attracting advertisers to cable news doesn't mean you're really covering a story, particularly in reference to Fox News' "agenda" and patriotic themes; international news must be covered, despite the latest lurid domestic story, because our safety demands it; delivering "good TV" often crowds out all sides of a story; and we have no idea how we're portrayed or perceived in the Middle East.

These views are what caught Banfield in such headlines as Reuters' "Banfield lashes out at own network" and WorldNetDaily's "Banfield slams war news coverage: NBC reporter hammers cable networks for pro-America stance."

Well, not quite.

"This TV show that we just gave you is extraordinarily entertaining," Banfield told the KSU crowd, "and I really hope that the legacy that it leaves behind is not one that shows war as glorious. But there's nothing more dangerous than a democracy that thinks this is a glorious thing to do. War is ugly, and it's dangerous. And in this world, the way we are discussed on the Arab street, it feeds and fuels their hatred and their desire to kill themselves to take out Americans."

Seems that should spark more thought than controversy. But the latter is easier.

Don't misunderstand. I've rolled my eyes more than once at Banfield's apparent belief in her own press, made even more insufferable by cable news' promotions of super-serious-faced hosts with crossed arms, their networks' logos looming behind as if ready to bop them on the head. When "star" is used to describe a reporter, the story is secondary. That Banfield attracted such attention for not rushing back to shower off ash while covering 9/11 -- as if pretty people are incapable of seriousness without fresh lipstick -- was perhaps a foreshadowing of the sticky situation she finds herself in.

One can argue that a working news reporter shouldn't offer opinions, a side with considerable merit. And Banfield's remarks about a competitor weren't entirely appropriate.

But her public rebuke by bosses who were "troubled" by her comments has more to do with her candor and everything to do with an increasing sensitivity to honesty and intolerance for out-of-lock-step viewpoints.

That's particularly troubling in a profession that's supposed to champion free speech.

© Northwest Arkansas Times. Tresa McBee writes for the Northwest Arkansas Times and can be reached at tresam@nwarktimes.com.

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