Media People: Margaret Brennan, Moderator of ‘Face the Nation’

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Kali Hays
·19 min read
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Margaret Brennan has come to terms with her gender being, maybe forever, a precursor to any description of her.

When she first took over in early 2018 as host of “Face the Nation,” Brennan became only the second woman in the 67 years of the show to do so, the other being Lesley Stahl, who left “Face” in 1991 after eight years. Brennan also took on the show during what may have been the peak of the Me Too movement, and CBS and CBS News went through its own extensive fallout around its protection of predatory men in power. The circumstances likely put even more focus on her being a woman and one who would now be the only female host among the Sunday public affairs shows.

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“Talking about it more, it’s become more empowering to me,” Brennan said. “Representation matters.”

But it took some time to get there. “I just didn’t want people to only see me as ‘the female host.’ I wanted them to see me as the host that did the best interviews, had the best program and performed,” Brennan said.

And the show has performed, particularly in 2020, as Brennan and her executive producer Mary Hager focused extensively on the coronavirus pandemic. It grew to be the most-watched Sunday news program, averaging about 3.5 million viewers, an increase of 18 percent from the previous year.

Of the news landscape overall, Brennan said it is slowly shifting under the new Biden administration, but the pace of news has not yet slowed, although there are “fewer shiny objects.” Still, in the coming year, she sees the pandemic being a major focus, along with the economic disparities made extremely apparent by it and the “repositioning” of America in the global power structure.

Here, WWD catches up with Brennan at home to discuss a changing Washington, D.C., landscape, the possibility of an investigation into the mishandling of the pandemic and more.

WWD: With your coverage of COVID-19 over the last year, was it difficult for you as a journalist and someone who’s been trying to be less politicized in coverage, to cover a pandemic that became very politicized?

Margaret Brennan: I would say the past four years have not been easy. Some of it’s changing, but I worry for our country that the partisanship, the filtering of information for what you want to hear versus what you need to hear, I really, really hope that we allow that to dissipate. That makes all of our jobs more stressful. And it does weigh on you.

In terms of covering COVID-19, it’s been a lot of the physical complications. TV is a team sport and figuring out how to get people in the same room safely to work together is a huge challenge. And now I’m six months pregnant, so that’s an added complication. Thinking of myself as someone at high risk is not something I’d ever had to do before. That was a mental adjustment.

WWD: When you go on maternity leave, who will take over for you?

M.B.: We’re still figuring that out. I’m due at the end of April, so some of this is just nature deciding its course. Last time, I went into labor the day after my due date. My doctor said “I don’t think I’ve ever had someone meet their deadline, so to speak.” I anchored my show on my due date, so I’m planning to work full speed ahead until I physically can’t.

WWD: So far, under Biden, has there already been a tonal shift in Washington you’ve noticed? I was struck by your Dr. Deborah Birx [White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator under President Trump] interview and the things she was saying, thinking if she’d said this six months ago, it could have been very helpful.

M.B.: I have a lot of thoughts about that conversation. There are so many different layers to it, but I heard her broader point. She’s a career civil servant who worked for this country for 40 years and agreed to go into this task force based on her experience as a scientist and she didn’t view that as political, but it was viewed as political. Have you ever worked for a boss you didn’t completely agree with?

WWD: Oh, no never.

M.B.: Right. She was trying to explain it in that context. As she tells it, she drove directly to state capitals to talk to governors who didn’t really want to hear her message that was contradicting the president.

But we have to look at the institutional failures and the problems there, in our public health agencies, because if we don’t deal with them, we’re gonna get hit next time, too, no matter what party is in office. The 9/11 Commission Report I think came out in 2004, so it took us a few years to get there. But I think we need to have that conversation now about this.

WWD: You feel there should be some deeper, years-long investigation into what happened, why we weren’t prepared?

M.B.: Yes. I think we are owed that as a country. I think it would be a mistake for us not to, in the long run, and I understand the instinct to not want to because we’re exhausted and so beaten up as a country. But how do we stop this from happening again? How does the richest country in the world with breaking technology and innovation, get so pummeled?

WWD: Do you see that getting political traction in any realistic way?

M.B.: Ha. Well, I certainly want to continue talking about it on our program. I think it’s something a lot of public health officials and former officials feel passionately about. It may take time to get there. There’s also this risk of the other crisis that just happened on Jan. 6, so we’re dealing with crises as they present themselves, but the security crisis is taking the most attention, right now. But I believe Congress will have to eventually get there on the virus. I would be disheartened if there was not. There are really big questions about our health agencies.

WWD: Like with Birx, are people coming to you like, “I want to say what I was really doing or really thinking under Trump”?

M.B.: This is going to be really interesting to watch. We’re seeing part of it play out publicly in the Republican party as they openly debate the tent that they have and the variety of Republicans within it. Like, how much of a stand to take against Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has espoused hate. The party has to decide if it’s still the party of Donald Trump.

WWD: Do you think this insurrection will affect the Trump family going forward in politics? My personal theory is this is a new dynasty in politics and they aren’t going anywhere…

M.B.: Time will tell us that. Obviously, the former president has a very dedicated base of supporters and followers. But I think you’re seeing the Republican party grapple with that. But he is not being estranged from large parts of his party, right now. I think anyone declaring the political life dead isn’t taking that fully into account.

WWD: And you’re not getting an onslaught of people calling, “Can I please be on the show and tell you what I was really up to…”

M.B.: Look, we’re not naive to the fact that there will be some rewriting of history. People always want to be the heroes of their own story. That’s human nature and people also want to be understood. That is something that is needed, to hear people out. I think that’s one of the greatest services, right now, is seeking to understand, right? To not have a “hot take,” but say “Walk me through what you were thinking, why you thought it, what the factors were, what am I missing?” Then let’s debate it. The “label first ask, questions later” thing is not my style and also not useful for us as a Democracy. You don’t learn anything by only talking to people you agree with.

WWD: When you’re interviewing, how do you deal with someone who comes on and is very obviously just there to spin whatever is going on in the news or outright lies to you?

M.B.: With any interview, it’s a dance. This is not the Margaret Brennan show, this is “Face the Nation” and I’m completely aware of that. My job is to moderate and get the info for the country. I could chest thump and yell “How dare you!” Sometimes, you get tweets after the show which I try to put aside and not let get into my head, but you’re like “Did they just want me to punch everyone in the face? What was it they thought the purpose was there?”

It is maddening to me, absolutely maddening when people come on to only hit talking points and you don’t illuminate and you don’t learn. That is a waste of our time and we try to avoid that to the best extent we can. That’s not always possible, right? There’s an entire industry of folks who train people to say nothing in interviews.

WWD: Do you get the sense that, in your years of doing this, that demand of, as you said, to figuratively punch people in the face, has been intensified among viewers?

M.B.: I spent a decade in financial news. I covered domestic politics, foreign affairs, I covered a lot of different things and you always see tension. Particularly in a moment of crisis it gets amplified. People are raw right now and I do think that has come forward a lot more. Particularly since summer, I’d say, this has really worn on people. And understandably. But we’re not activists, we’re journalists.

WWD: As an interviewer, do you have any core strategies you use, things you’ve developed over the years?

M.B.: One of the things you have to remind yourself is it’s not personal, it’s business. When someone tries to make it personal, that’s a diversion and so put that aside. The “Oh, the media is terrible” is usually a talking point that means “I have nothing better to say.” Otherwise, in terms of my preparation, I try to read as much as I possibly can and absorb as much as I can on an issue, so I know where to focus in my limited amount of time or I can fact check. Which became incredibly important.

WWD: Was it surprising to you when this whole thing of “The media is completely fake, no one can trust it” came so strongly to the U.S.?

M.B.: The phenomenon of labeling mainstream media wasn’t invented by Donald Trump, it just really came to the fore in a way I hadn’t seen before. But you get that from both parties. “The media is only focusing on this,” or “The real issue is over here,” so it’s always a frustration. You try to capture everything you can in an interview and a moment and you can’t always. But the idea of widespread conspiracy is just ridiculous.

But it is something that we as journalists need to take seriously, because it also reflects where we are as a country. If you just look at Pew Research and other polling organizations, we as the Fourth Estate have lost credibility in the view of a lot of the public, rightly or wrongly. That is something I think a lot about, as someone who’s covered national security for some time. Democracy doesn’t work unless people are informed to participate and that is our job, to keep them informed. It really breaks my heart when I hear people who truly believe that journalists are not being motivated by the right things.

WWD: Do you think there’s any coming back from it? Should we have media literacy in schools?

M.B: This is something I think a lot about. Media literacy is a great idea. I try often to explain differences in media to people by pointing out that Goldman Sachs and Paypal both touch money and they’re in the financial sector but they’re not the same thing at all. So, if you can use that, think about what CBS News is versus your [personal social feed]. Just because information may be in the same environment doesn’t mean it has editorial standards, the depth of research required. But people don’t always know the difference between a tabloid and a well-researched, edited, lawyered-up article.

WWD: You started on “Face” in 2018, smack in the middle of the Trump administration, how was that for you?

M.B.: It was a big change to go from the day in, day out of a reporting job, which was drinking from a firehose as a White House reporter in the Trump administration. But there are so many things you don’t appreciate until you’re in the moderator role.

As Bob Schieffer said, it’s the best job in television. I love it. It also came with so many complexities I didn’t appreciate. Knowing the issues inside and out is different than being in the front row of the White House briefing room.

WWD: Did you feel a lot of pressure coming after Bob Schieffer, and Lesley Stahl before him? John Dickerson, too, but he wasn’t there as long…

M.B.: Oh, 100 percent. I felt a tremendous amount of pressure, but also, it was such a dream. I did not think I was going to get it.

Also, just by coincidence, I was stepping into the role as I was taking on this other huge project in my life, being pregnant with my first child. And there was a lot of focus on my gender in the wake of Me Too. I spent a lot of time really working on trying to live up to the responsibilities of that. It feels so great now to see that people have responded to the show, particularly in the past year. It’s taken three years to get there, and I’m so proud of where we are now, knowing how overwhelming it was in the beginning.

WWD: How do you measure success on the show? Is it just ratings, your pull with guests?

M.B.: There are a lot of different things we judge the show on. The shows I feel good about when I walk away, well, I rarely walk away from something saying, well, saying…

WWD: Nailed it.

M.B.: Right. It’s always “What could I have done better here?” But the ones I feel good about are when the guest was really good at illuminating an issue and our viewers will walk away learning something or I learn something over the course of the interview.

And then, obviously, it’s great when that’s matched by ratings. Sometimes it is and sometimes it’s not. It’s always interesting to see what resonates with people. Obviously, I’m judged just like anyone else on their performance each week and ratings are part of that, but for me to feel good about myself, that’s not it.

WWD: How competitive is it among the Sunday shows? Is it collegial or do you compare ratings constantly and that affects your view of how well you’ve done?

M.B.: Oh, anyone who tells you they’re not comparing is not being honest. Everyone does that. But I think it is very collegial. Washington, D.C., is a very small town and it is a single industry town in many ways. All of the hosts know each other. We encounter each other on a regular basis, so we’re very collegial with each other. I’ve found that to be surprisingly refreshing that we are all friendly and can compare notes. Of course, we compete on content on performance, but that’s different.

WWD: When you came to the show was there anything that you wanted to change that ended up happening?

M.B.: The show has evolved in a few ways but I think we were in complete alignment on wanting to keep the values of the program, context and perspective, constant. But in the past year we’ve probably seen the most adjustment, some forced. We aren’t doing the political panels anymore with journalists and haven’t through the course of the pandemic. Some of it was logistical, but we also felt our time is so precious and if you could take those minutes and give them to someone at the center of the crisis, it was better to put that newsmaker in there.

WWD: I’m curious how it feels to constantly be described as “the only woman with a Sunday news show” or “only the second woman” to host “Face the Nation.” Does it get annoying?

M.B.: No, it doesn’t. But my thinking has changed over time. I am proud of that. I love that. But, I have always felt, like many women in positions of influence and scrutiny, that pressure of not wanting my gender to be the thing that defines me. I want my work to define me. So, I was very sensitive to that on the way into the job. And I also was very sensitive to saying “I’m about to have a child, but it’s not going to change anything!” But talking about it more, it’s become more empowering to me. Representation matters. I’ve heard from younger colleagues as well that it has mattered to them in a way that didn’t occur to me. I just didn’t want people to only see me as “the female host.” I wanted them to see me as the host that did the best interviews, had the best program and performed.

WWD: Did what was going on outside of politics when you got the show have an influence on your feelings then? Me Too was happening. CBS was going through a lot of changes that seemed a long time coming…

M.B.: Maybe? I don’t know. When I think of that time, I think of it in very personal terms. Perhaps also because I was pregnant and going through that on camera and thinking about that. I was thinking of it in that moment of proving it to myself, proving to the world that I could do it all. I felt there was a high bar set and perhaps a degree of scrutiny of me because of the moment we were in, but I thought of it in very personal terms.

WWD: And at that time there was a lot going on at CBS. I imagine the negotiations for the merger were an open secret at that point. Les Moonves gets pushed out. Then specifically at CBS News, fallout around misconduct allegations. Did that affect you in any way, having been at CBS already for a few years?

M.B.: It was hard for everyone at the company. Particularly as journalists, you never want to be the story. It was shocking, certainly to me and many of my colleagues. Some of the personal stories that came out, many of my colleagues have been public as well about how personally upsetting it was.

For me, my answer to all of it has been to put my head down and keep pushing through and working. But that moment of reckoning for the country is very much needed. It’s forced a lot of uncomfortable conversations. I have, for years now, when speaking to young female journalists, said that this is something they need to personally think about, if you’re in a situation where this happens, someone tries to use their job as, well, people may not always see you as you see yourself. They may see your gender first. I’m glad we’re talking about it more, but it’s painful and uncomfortable when it happens within your own company.

WWD: Do you feel CBS News is new or different in any way since then?

M.B.: I mean, I am in this bubble of my program where we have a very strong group of producers, majority of staff is female, and we kept doing the job we were doing. Of course, these kinds of upheavals are always complicated for everyone when you’re going through them and reshuffling the deck. Corporate-wise, you always wonder what’s coming around the corner, but I don’t think it changed the work that we do or the mission we’ve had. It put a much needed light on these issues.

WWD: What do you see as the next major issues for the Biden administration in the next four years, what you’ll be talking about with guests?

M.B.: Expect the unexpected. But for the near term, the pandemic will remain a defining issue. This will be the measuring stick for the Biden administration, particularly out of the gate. Then the repositioning of America and what the country’s role is globally and what we want it to be is something I’m fascinated by. Along with that what does championing American values actually mean these days? We label things genocide, but we’ve decided as a country not to take action, that’s a conversation we should be having more. This pandemic has made undeniable the economic disparities here, but also the burden we’ve put on women in this country. That’s something I am more interested in talking about. Secretary Yellen has said flat out we can’t be competitive as an economy without addressing these things.

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