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Margaret Brennan Faces Fresh Challenges on Sunday Morning

Margaret Brennan of Face the Nation on CBS
Margaret Brennan at the ‘Face the Nation’ anchor desk. (Image credit: Michele Crowe/CBS)

Three years ago this month, Margaret Brennan was named moderator of Face the Nation. The CBS public-affairs program is in a favorable spot, finishing 2020 with an average of a Sunday-best 3,598,000 million total viewers. The show tallied a whopping 4.5 million viewers on Jan. 10, as viewers looked for Brennan’s take on the Capitol invasion.  

She has had a front-row seat for the torrid pace at which the news cycle now moves. “It’s been such a whirlwind,” Brennan said. “I think it’s been 10 years of news packed into three years of moderating.”

Between the pandemic, battles for racial equality, the election and the storming of the Capitol, it’s an awful lot to cover for Brennan or for anyone chronicling national politics. She aims to offer ample “context and perspective” to the Sunday program. “Just a clear-headed, straightforward focus on facts, the things people can’t afford not to know,” she said. “That’s been the driving focus of how I think about Sundays.”

I think it’s been 10 years of news packed into three years of moderating.

— Margaret Brennan, Face the Nation

Mary Hager, longtime executive producer on Face the Nation, said Brennan is perfectly poised to cover the hectic news schedule. “Margaret is by far the most-studious, well-prepared, well-educated, well-versed-
in-policy moderator,” she said. “Margaret is someone who wants to know everything about a topic. I’m so impressed by how well she knows each guest’s subject matter. She studies. She’s a voracious reader. She loves facts and she loves context.”

Brennan had been White House and senior foreign affairs correspondent at CBS News. She started in the Face the Nation chair on Feb. 25, 2018, after John Dickerson shifted to CBS This Morning. Hager said Brennan excels at crafting a question in a manner that often gets a reluctant guest to give it up. 

Big gets for Face the Nation in recent times include Dr. Deborah Birx last month, Dr. Anthony Fauci in November and then-Attorney General William Barr in June. Barr discussed the controversial clearing of Lafayette Square in Washington for President Donald Trump’s church visit. 

The news cycle may slow a bit after Trump’s impeachment hearing concludes. Brennan noted a different vibe out of the White House across the last month. “There aren’t tweets — that’s a big change,” she said, describing how the former president could insert himself into a big story with a few taps on his phone. 

“We’ve gone from covering chaos to covering challenges,” Hager said. “It’s a little bit of a different tone at this point. But then you look at Congress and maybe that’s not the case.”

New Admin, Old Problems

Brennan stressed that the issues dividing Washington, and the nation as a whole, hardly dissipated when Trump headed for Mar-a-Lago. “Make no mistake — the problems that are confronting us didn’t disappear at noon on Jan. 20” with the swearing-in of President Joe Biden, she said. “The producers and I talk about all the same things we did a few weeks ago.”

Face the Nation’s 3.598 million average viewers last year nipped Meet the Press’s 3.58 million, while NBC’s Meet the Press won in viewers 25-54, averaging 828,000 to Face’s 723,000 and ABC’s This Week average of 711,000. Hager uses another metric to measure success: “More and more people comment to me, you really learn from Face the Nation interviews.”

Podcast Facing Forward with Margaret Brennan premiered Jan. 22. Brennan is figuring out the best way to communicate in this newer medium. “We’re trying to figure out how to do an in-depth conversation and follow an arc that is interesting for an audio-only listener,” Brennan said. 

Margaret Brennan and Scott Gottlieb on Face the Nation

Margaret Brennan interviews former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb about the COVID-19 outbreak.  (Image credit: Chris Usher/CBS)

Brennan and Hager look forward to the day when guests again turn up on the set for interviews, instead of the remote ones happening amidst the pandemic. “You really do get better interviews when they’re sitting across the table, looking each other in the eye,” Hager said. “It just makes for a much more compelling interview and probably better television too.”

Even with a less blustery president in the White House, the news cycle will hardly subside. After her eventful three years at Face the Nation, Brennan is planning out the next three years. She described “so many deep story lines converging at once” over the past year, stories that personally affect a vast number of Americans. 

“It has been historic and we feel the weight of the moment for our country,” said Brennan. “It’s not just political junkies chewing on the week that was. We are talking about people’s lives in a very personal way right now.”