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Desert Foxes 

Wednesday, Nov 28 2001
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During the Blitz, Edward R. Murrow became famous to millions of Americans for his eloquent rooftop broadcasts (“This . . . is London.”). But back then, media culture wasn’t all-devouring. As the bombs rained down on the East End, people didn‘t ask, “Gee, I wonder which reporter’s career will be launched by all this?”

Nowadays, they do. Whether it‘s Ted Koppel being made by the Iranian hostage crisis or Arthur Kent turning into the “Scud Stud” during the Gulf War, historic news stories have become the journalistic fast track to celebrity. And this happens so routinely that the search for the new media star is automatically built into coverage of the events themselves. Within hours of the attack on the World Trade Center, you could already hear people asking, “Who’s going to be made by this one?”

The answer appeared to be Ashleigh Banfield, a 33-year-old, Canadian-born anchorwoman whose trademark, as we read in countless media articles, is a pair of thick-rimmed librarian glasses. On September 11, Banfield covered ground zero in New York for MSNBC, standing firm as she became coated with ash. Network executives were so dazzled by her on-camera savvy that, although she had almost as little international knowledge as our president, they jetted her off to Pakistan, where she began anchoring the weeknightly news show Region in Conflict. Since then, she seems to have been everywhere for the cable channel -- interviewing Musharraf in London, covering the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in Queens, jeeping into darkest Afghanistan like a contestant on The Amazing Race. MSNBC clearly hopes to make her a name brand, perhaps replacing smug Brian Williams and his Amazing Tilted Head.

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Now it‘s possible, even likely, that you’ve never seen Ashleigh Banfield. After all, her audience is measured in the hundreds of thousands, and her presence hasn‘t turned Region in Conflict into a ratings juggernaut. I only started checking her out after Saturday Night Live tweaked her for dyeing her blond hair brunette so she’d fit in better in Central Asia. Still, this didn‘t stop the cultural arbiters in New York from indulging in the self-fulfilling prophecy of dubbing her the latest big thing and ruminating on her cultural meaning.

Her arrival became official on October 28, when The New York Times began burbling: “There is so much buzzing about Ms. Banfield -- both her smart, self-effacing delivery and low-key stylish look -- that she might be a contender for a new kind of fashion figurehead.” So wrote Kate Betts, whose unerring instinct for the Zeitgeist recently got her fired from the editorship of Harper’s Bazaar. Her claim was seconded by another long article that termed Banfield “perhaps the most-talked-about news personality since September 11” (more talked about than weepy Dan Rather and anthrax-attacked Tom Brokaw?) and told us that she was a new kind of young anchor for the Gen-X crowd and some hip old boomers.

Maybe so, but such claims seem far less compelling when you actually watch her. Banfield is undeniably plucky and has more on the ball than, say, the androids on Entertainment Tonight. But she runs no risk of migraines from the expanse of her knowledge -- she‘s rather openly learning on the job -- and like William Hurt in Broadcast News, she’s a performer, not a reporter: Her great gift lies in being comfortable on camera. She‘s actually a far less convincing anchorwoman than SNL’s equally bespectacled and infinitely wittier Tina Fey (who, in a bow to the geniuses at People, I declare this year‘s Sexiest Woman Alive). Watching Banfield, I find myself asking if her style really will appeal to younger audiences as MSNBC hopes. I keep thinking of Michael Kinsley’s lethal description of Al Gore: an old person‘s idea of a young person.

Then again, Banfield’s career is itself too young for anyone to make any confident predictions. After all, the real trick in TV news is to last. Where have you gone, Tabitha Soren?

On November 12, Wall Street Journal editor Tunku Varadarajan praised Banfield (“a fine-boned lady with large, titanium glasses”) for not pretending to know anything. Not that he really cared about her. His real aim was to slag off CNN‘s Christiane Amanpour (“the diva of parachute journalism . . . a fearless she-man”) for her egotism and to celebrate the BBC’s “dulcet-voiced Canadian” Lyse Doucet for her brainy lack of ostentation.

Although much of what Varadarajan said was true -- BBC coverage of the war does make our networks look childish -- his article got him clobbered. Banfield herself was appalled: “We just lost four of our colleagues today,” she told a Canadian paper. “They‘re putting their lives on the line every day to cover this story. And for someone to sit behind a desk at The Wall Street Journal and criticize our hair, our demeanor and our makeup, is absolutely abysmal.”

You’d have hoped we‘d outgrown the creepy old-fart paternalism of focusing on female journalists’ appearances. Not that Varadarajan‘s attitude is extraordinary. Although today’s news shows are no longer a male preserve -- the jolly troglodytes at Fox News even boast a feminist Web site -- they still care inordinately about women‘s looks. How else to explain CNN hiring NYPD Blue bombshell Andrea Thompson to anchor Headline News?

Of course, looks matter with men, too, which is why ABC’s Afghan coverage features literary hunk Sebastian Junger rather than pasty William Vollman. Still, you can scour the prime-time lineups and find no shows hosted by women as lousy to look at as skull-faced Alan Colmes, side-of-beef Chris Matthews or gaga Larry King, who appears to be popped out of his sarcophagus five minutes before airtime. It‘s no accident that the broadcast outlet that boasts the strongest lineup of women reporters and analysts -- including Nina Totenberg, Cokie Roberts and European correspondent Sylvia Poggioli -- is National Public Radio. There, the whole question of appearance slides into irrelevance (though it doesn’t hurt to sound as cool as Poggioli). Braininess becomes a virtue.

On TV, though, women‘s surest road to stardom is still to go “soft,” following in the venerable footsteps of Barbara Walters, the most important TV news personality of the last 40 years. When she first started co-anchoring the ABC Evening News with Harry Reasoner, there was much talk (a lot of it by Reasoner) that she wasn’t up to the manly task -- her personal, confessional style was too fluffy, too feminine. It was also the future. A quarter-century later, the gruff Reasoner is just a two-fisted footnote and Walters‘ point of view (not to mention The View) has defined our culture, not always in the most feminist of ways.

Tough-minded women still have a hard time throughout the media (not just on TV) because their intellectual force invariably seems to unleash primal fear and loathing: Susan Sontag’s remarks about the politics of the September 11 attacks drew far more vitriol than similar columns by men, and Pauline Kael‘s death brought out misogynist sniping, even in The Village Voice. This dislike of potent women helps explain why Amanpour has become a bete noire to right-wingers such as Varadarajan (she-man, indeed!) and The New York Post columnist who called her a “war slut” (the paper’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, later apologized).

Amanpour remains the first female TV broadcaster in our history who commands the same kind of respect as the long line of father figures that started with Murrow and continues (in much diluted form) with Rather, Brokaw and Jennings. And it seems almost to have happened by design. Ever since the Gulf War, when we saw her out there in the desert, she‘s neatly transcended the good looks that initially helped make her by commandeering the signifiers of male authority. She flies into places more dangerous than World War II London. She flaunts her flak jacket just like Gunga Dan. She struts into rooms with the same cocksure certitude that her mere presence elevates an interview into a world event. No doubt much of this is vanity and PR legerdemain, but this is how journalists become icons to the modern eye: They play one on TV. And nobody covering the war in Afghanistan plays the part nearly so well as Amanpour.

While the guys who run network news are still leery of tough women, they’ve learned that it‘s good business to have a female star on the order of Amanpour -- which is why MSNBC has been so eager to let Banfield earn her stripes in Central Asia. Everybody wants a desert fox, even Al Jazeera, a network I don’t exactly associate with the avid promotion of women‘s rights. Obviously playing to American tastes in female reporters, their New York City correspondent Ghida Fakhry may be the world’s most glamorous Muslim scold. All plucked eyebrows and well-cut clothes, she sits with Ted Koppel or Sam Donaldson and speaks with the self-satisfied aplomb of one who knows that America is nearly always wrong but still gets to live in Manhattan and not Qatar. She‘s a real piece of work (not the Sexiest Woman Alive). I don’t know what her true politics are, but if you think bin Laden‘s scary, just try to tell Fakhry that she’s got to start wearing a burka.

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