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Just as his square jaw and into-the-mike whispers turned Arthur Kent into the "Scud Stud" of the Gulf War, the World Trade Center tragedy has made 33-year-old Ashleigh Banfield, MSNBC's blonde bulldog of a reporter, into the TV talking head of the moment.

As the Twin Towers collapsed, she choked on dust, helped a New York cop to safety, and lived to tell the tale during a string of eighteen-hour days. "We were living it," Banfield says, "We were living this horror." After the first tower fell, Banfield went on air and didn't put down her mike for seven days. At one point, a cloud from the second tower's collapse came roaring up the street and Banfield commanded a young mother she was interviewing: "Mind the baby! Mind the baby!" A firefighter stopped by for a debriefing, but Banfield allowed him to call his mom on her cell phone first -- a conversation she broadcast live.

Good journalism or just good television? It's a question that has dogged the Canadian native ever since her Florida-recount reporting for MSNBC got wows from TV critics but drew the ire of a few fellow reporters who wondered out loud whether her late-in-life switch to brainy black designer glasses was just an ambitious climber's shameless gimmick.

But defying on-air custom is part of Banfield's attention-grabbing package: She openly expresses dismay at her surroundings, flubs some of her facts, and gropes for answers. "It's difficult to put a finger on it," says Banfield's boss, Erik Sorenson, when pressed to explain her surging popularity. "What I've heard from a lot of viewers is that there seems to be an authenticity about her."

As a reward for her reporting from ground zero, Banfield was posted to Islamabad, where her behavior continues to win accolades and raise eyebrows in equal measure. When she appeared onscreen last Tuesday, for example, Sorenson discovered that she had clipped her locks and died them mouse-brown. (Just a little blending in with the scenery, she insists.) Then came the Christiane Amanpour-like accent she's occasionally slipped into since arriving in Pakistan. And this week, MSNBC brass are worried that her penchant for theatrics will take her (against their orders) where even Dan Rather now fears to tread: the militarized Afghan border.


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