Watching television on 9/11, among the most memorable reportage was that of Ashleigh Banfield. I had no idea who she was, found her rather grating, and thought her name was a bit much, as were the glasses. Covered in the horrible, horrible white ash, she jammed non-stop, walking and talking, ultimately overcoming my initial feelings of pretension by being "in the moment", and doing what an old boss of mine called "rockin' an' rollin'". She was in the middle of a monumental story, and she was ad libbing, and it was the kind of TV news magic that happens when a huge story breaks.
The facts that her performance that day positioned her as an instant star of a sort, that she became the flavor of the month at MSNBC, that she was given two series to host that were conceptual disasters, and that she couldn't pull them off, are an interesting case study. We don't know the facts behind the scenes, but we can put pieces together. We can wonder if Ashleigh jumped on the train without considering her career strategy, and allowed herself to be "managed" by management. As she moved toward the train wreck that has now occurred, but that can be corrected using my "Three M" strategy, one wonders if she ever questioned whether the shows she was being given had formats that would be successful. It might not have been opportune to turn down a show offer, but once accepted, star talent can work with the executive producer to shape the show into something audience-friendly. The shows Ashleigh was given were utter turn-offs, and reveal the vigilance we must exercise in maneuvering around the often bad decisions of executives.
Jim Rutenberg recently wrote a piece in The New York Times about the Banfield crisis that followed her making a most foolish speech stating that the networks' and cable channels' coverage of the war in Iraq "wasn't journalism". I'm taking that out of context, but she was referring to the lack of coverage of the horror of war. I happen to agree with most of what she said in that speech, but saying any of it "wasn't journalism" was simply stupid.
Ashleigh must be in a fair bit of pain, having been through the meat grinder since 9/11, but that's not unusual, and when you become flavor of the month, it's time to get ready for the meat grinder. Am I making myself clear? I'll say it again. When you become flavor of the month, enjoy it, milk it, do your greatest work, but at the same time, get ready, because in almost every case, you're going to take a fall. And so, while you're flavor of the month, work your relationships and build your network so you can engineer a soft landing. Bad as things get, even if you do nothing, and make stupid mistakes like Banfield, because you need to lash out, it's not too late to undo the damage.
Here's a quote from Rutenberg's article:
"To some at NBC, her story is a cautionary tale in the increasingly competitive television news business. She is a victim, these people said, of MSNBC's constant attempts at reinvention as it tries to pull out of third place in the cable news ratings, behind Fox News Channel [Full disclosure: I was on the launch team of the Fox News Channel-Dan] and CNN.
"They said MSNBC, desperate for attractive and vibrant personalities who connect with viewers, thought it had found one in Ms. Banfield, and then pushed her along too quickly, only to hastily abandon her when the ratings waned. But to others, it is a story of how the promising young star too readily believed the hype MSNBC built around her, and did not do enough to build the relationships. In the process, several people at NBC said, Ms. Banfield alienated bosses and colleagues, including Katie Couric, an anchor of "Today," and had few supporters when her program languished in the ratings.
"In the latest example, she angered top NBC management April 25 by giving a speech that it believed was critical of its war coverage. NBC News publicly rebuked Ms. Banfield, whose contract runs out early next year."
After 9/11, Banfield was given a nightly hour-long show which she would broadcast from the Middle East and other remote locations. The idea was for her to do what she had done on 9/11--ad lib for an hour. She would, on tape, but pseudo-live, get on a bus in Pakistan or somewhere in the neighborhood, looking at the viewer, and wing it, talking about how the women were dressed and why, where they were going, how she only got 3 hours of sleep every night, and on and on and on. This was horrible television. What a terrible idea. It's one thing to ad lib when the world is ending, it's another to create a show where one reporter blabs away unscripted, unstructured, unedited--whose idea was this?
You may remember another beyond-belief series Banfield was given on MSNBC which required her to travel around the country on a bus, getting the mood of the country, again blab lib. Would you watch this?
Not knowing anything behind the scenes, if I were Ashleigh, I would have declined the bus tour show. Remember, we're going to survive and prosper in the media jungle! We're going to employ career strategy and job crisis management.
And who is Ashleigh Banfield? Another quote from The New York Times: "Ms. Banfield was just what MSNBC was looking for when it hired her in early 2000. At the time, she was an anchor at KDFW, the Fox station in Dallas, where she had won an Emmy for a report on a murder case. She was also known in the city's gossip pages for singing in a rock band and for holding late-night parties at her loft apartment."
And so we learn something else that Ashleigh needed to consider after 9/11. She wasn't ready. MSNBC management should have realized that. But you can't count on your bosses to make the right decisions for you. You've got to handle them. And you've got to get in touch with your self. Take a look at my web site self-help page and try to work out your boss's personality type. Keep your career strategy in mind. And when you're given an offer or a reprimand, listen graciously, but don't respond during that meeting. Absorb what you've heard, let your emotions ease, and analyze the best strategic response. Respond the next day, or the day after that.
Be sure not to make any speeches criticizing the company you work for.
Let's watch what happens with Ashleigh, and talk about it some more. It's a great case study.
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