Margaret Brennan of ‘Face The Nation’ on hyper-partisanship, trust in media and fact-checking guests

Margaret Brennan on “Face the Nation” in Washington DC Jan. 17, 2020 Photo: Chris Usher/CBS © 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All rights reserved.

Hosting a Sunday news program requires “being allergic to ideology” and the ability to question everything, Margaret Brennan says.

“In this age of hyper partisanship and hot takes, it is a constant mission to bring clarity around an issue,” said Brennan, who recently celebrated her three-year anniversary of hosting “Face The Nation.”

Brennan has guided her audience through the pandemic by shifting the show’s format from an emphasis on political punditry to policy. She also launched a podcast earlier this year, “Facing Forward,” that centers on how global changes impact everyday Americans.

We reached out to Brennan by email for a reflection on her work at “Face The Nation,” her approach to real-time fact-checking guests and the role of a moderator in fighting disinformation.      

Can you share how the show has changed under your tenure? What are your goals for the next three years? 

Brennan: In the past year alone, we’ve refocused the show toward policy and the crises confronting the country. That has meant more newsmaker guests discussing the economy, health policy, racial and gender disparities and, recently, no political panels. We’ve launched a podcast spinoff from the show, engaged more on the social media front with regular Twitter chats with newsmakers, and are constantly looking for ways to engage what we learn on the program into other CBS platforms. The architecture of “Face The Nation” will always be built around context and perspective. Over the past three years, we’ve been managing through a chaotic news cycle and crisis.

Over the next three years, I think we’ll be continuing to cover our country as it undergoes this period of massive change that has resulted in part from the pandemic. That means continuing to weigh questions about the direction we’re headed in terms of how to allocate our resources toward rebuilding our economy, health system, repairing the education gap, and playing catchup on the gender and racial divides that widened particularly during the pandemic. I think we as a country also need to have a serious debate about America’s place in the world.

You welcome guests from all political backgrounds. Can you talk about how you are approaching your work during such a politically-divisive moment? 

Brennan: I really don’t like partisanship and ideological thinking that is devoid of independent critical analysis or the ability for self-criticism. In this age of hyper partisanship and hot takes, it is a constant mission to bring clarity around an issue.

So many viewers or potential viewers either don’t trust the news media or don’t understand your role as a moderator. How do you reconcile your dislike of the hyper-partisanship with the reality that it exists and affects your show’s ability to reach people?

Brennan: I am aware that the entire journalism profession has been under scrutiny and often deserves it. I also see the anger that has boiled over particularly on social media where there are often demands for advocacy rather than journalism.  

I believe that we have a responsibility to thoroughly cover and research the issues we present to the public and to press for clear answers. Hot takes are cheap, and you can get an opinion anywhere. Holding policy makers to account through informed conversations is our fundamental responsibility. I take that to heart and keep in mind to always question the underlying premise of a policy or idea. I believe the public is smart and hungry for facts. I believe that they will also see the value in the type of journalism that I strive for on the broadcast, which is different from the outrage infotainment trend that often dominates airwaves. 

In your opinion, what is the role of a Sunday news program in fighting disinformation? 

Brennan: My job as moderator is to provide the viewers with the information that they cannot afford not to know and the facts surrounding the policies that are affecting their lives. It requires being allergic to ideology and willing to question the basic premise of any proposal or idea regardless of who is presenting it. 

In this age of hyper partisanship and alternative facts, the job has required honing my ability to do live, on-the-fly fact-checking. That means a lot of research and homework by the “Face The Nation” team and me. We try to avoid putting anyone on the air who we know will willingly and deliberately mislead the public. People are busy and they’re smart and they don’t deserve us or their elected leaders wasting their time.

What is your process for live fact-checking guests? How do you handle a guest who is blatantly lying?

Brennan: That’s why I do a lot of homework before the show as do our producers who prep me. The hope is that I’ll know what to listen and look for but we certainly try our best to avoid someone blatantly lying. 

Can you walk us through that homework process? How does it affect which guests you invite on the show? What does your fact-checking homework look like?

Brennan: Guests are booked by Friday and occasionally in advance. Sometimes research starts before the booking is made if it is a big topic. I read up on the topic and the guest including past interview transcripts. We have a team of producers who begin gathering as soon as a booking is confirmed. I either come at it via the topic of the moment or the record of the individual. I talk to the senior producers and our executive producer on Saturday night to go through the show and make sure I am not missing anything. I work up until the last minute on Sundays to finalize questions and sometimes you call audibles on the fly to follow up, etc. Listening and being responsive to the guest is important. 

If it is breaking news, then prep is a different scenario.

How do you decide which guests to bring back onto the show?

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT); US Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams; former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb talks with Margaret Brennan on “Face the Nation” in Washington DC March 8, 2020 Photo: Chris Usher/CBS © 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All rights reserved.

Brennan: I love guests who help us learn something. Guests like Dr. Scott Gottlieb (pictured with Brennan) show respect for our audience by doing a lot of prep work and homework each week to make sure he delivers analysis that addresses the latest information on COVID. That’s why we have had him on consistently throughout the past 11 months of this pandemic.

Some of the most well-regarded programs and news organizations in the country are facing scrutiny — internally and externally — for a lack of diverse representation in voices, faces and staffing. How does your team approach racial and gender diversity in deciding which guests appear (and reappear)? 

Brennan: Our team is always aware of the diversity of guests including racial, gender and ideological diversity. Topically, we handle these issues through our guests as well. The brain trust of editorial decisions is led by strong women including our executive producer Mary Hager, our senior producers, our booking producer and many of our early-career team members. 

2020 was a tumultuous year that brought a lot of existing fissures to the forefront. The pandemic itself exacerbated these fault lines in our country, and we often discuss that with our guests — especially the communities of color that bear the brunt of these broken-down systems in our country. The exodus of women in particular from the workforce due in part to the lack of social safety nets and federal guarantees for paid leave have been a topic we often touch on with guests both on the broadcast and my new podcast, “Facing Forward.”

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