Since taking the reins of the CBS Sunday morning news program Face the Nation in early 2018, Margaret Brennan has helped viewers navigate the rough waters of American politics, global affairs, the economy and more. A Connecticut native, Brennan is the only woman serving as solo moderator of a major Sunday morning television political news program, and her insightful handling of discussions of complex topics, her intelligent approach to analysis and commentary, and her no-nonsense style are considered largely responsible for Face the Nation taking the top spot in the Sunday morning news ratings.
As was the case for most Americans, the past year brought a number of unexpected pivots for Brennan — as well as for the show. As COVID-19 and its impacts gripped the U.S. and the world, Face the Nation revamped into an hour-long PSA, shedding the traditional format of political insiders and pundits to focus not just on politics, but also on those most affected by the pandemic: frontline workers, women and minorities in particular; and bringing viewers interviews with top scientists and economists. Also serving as senior affairs correspondent for CBS News, Brennan recently launched a new podcast, Facing Forward, bringing the focus and format of Face the Nation to a new medium.
Here, in an email exchange, Brennan looks back on the challenges, divisiveness and major issues that marked 2020, from partisan politics to the pandemic, as well as looks ahead to what’s in store for our nation the rest of this year. Brennan, working from home these days while caring for her 2-year-old son, also shares some life-changing personal news.
To say the past year has been unprecedented in politics is an understatement. How do you view the press’ performance in handling one of the most tumultuous periods, political and otherwise, in U.S. history?
I am proud of my team at Face the Nation for staying focused on facts, information, perspective and context in an environment that often seems to feed off of vitriol, conflict and opinion.
Has the press’ role or responsibilities changed in recent years? Are there areas or aspects you'd like to see journalists and commentators handle differently moving forward?
My concern for us as a country is that the partisanship and pursuit of affirmation of belief rather than information about a complex reality will persist. I hope that there will be a renewal of respect for journalists who hold all political leaders to account, which is necessary for a functioning democracy. It is frustrating to me at times to see the blurring of lines on television and online between journalists who chronicle fact and commentators who share analysis and opinion. One is not the same as the other. All of us need to remember that and we owe it to the public to continue being tough on those in power so that we continue to hold the trust of the public.
Have your professional objectives changed in the past few years?
My personal objectives have not changed but my approaches and adaptation to the environment that we’re in has changed. For example, during the last 10 months of the pandemic it renewed our commitment to providing a public service during the broadcast. During a pandemic and national crisis, people are craving facts and details about the state of their world. That is politics and policy in a real sense. It was unusual in an election year to cover far less of the horse race than is typical during an election cycle. But we felt we needed to meet this moment of a national reckoning on race, an economic crisis, a pandemic and a crisis of confidence in our own institutions.
Do you foresee continued divisiveness in our country, both politically and societally, or is there a chance for unity and civility in Washington, throughout the nation and in the media?
There is a chance for unity and civility in America but it requires openness to it. Disagreeing without being disagreeable, discussing complex issues without labeling someone or deciding their moral worth based on the answer they give, and taking the time to understand context is required.
What are your favorite aspects of your job?
My favorite part is the license it provides to pick up the phone and call decision-makers to ask them directly about the choices that they make that influence our lives. Having a front-row seat to history and being part of discovering and uncovering what is really happening is addictive. It is not just a vocation, it is a calling. You have to have a genuine curiosity and concern to be willing to sacrifice your holidays, weekends and time off to chase the moment and news as it happens. Unfortunately, history doesn’t always happen on your schedule.
As the second woman to moderate Face the Nation, are you hopeful that there will be increased diversity in the news media?
As an American I am hopeful that we will continue to find ways to reflect and understand our own complexity and diversity. Understanding a point of view and how events impact people is important for us as a country. For instance, I would like to hear more about the solutions to the economic crisis that has been borne most significantly by women this time around. I also want to hear more about why as a society we have not chosen to address the burden put on them specifically as primary caregivers with the challenge of school closures that require childcare, the closure of childcare centers due to the pandemic, and the disproportionate job losses in the industries in which women happen to work. This is the first female-led recession. What will our recovery look like and why aren’t we hearing more about the plan to help them?
You were born in Stamford and went to school at The Convent of the Sacred Heart in Greenwich. Do you still have ties to the state?
The past five generations of my mother’s family have lived in Connecticut, and I still have plenty of family in Newtown, Danbury and Southington. I was born in Stamford, grew up in Danbury and went to high school in Greenwich.
Growing up, did you hope to be a journalist? What path did you take to get into news?
I did not know that I was going to be a journalist but I did know that I was fascinated with moments of social and political change. I constantly wanted to understand why exactly inflection points happened that determined the direction of history. My parents gave me the Sunday newspaper to read each week during grade school and I used to devour The New York Times Magazine and newspaper itself. By the time I got to the University of Virginia, all I knew was that I wanted to be directly involved in policy making or politics. I thought that meant being a diplomat, but then I studied abroad and came back to the U.S. and realized how important the first-person experience is to shaping a worldview. My mom encouraged me to try television news. She said you’re always complaining about news coverage not getting the whole story, then why don’t you try it yourself. I interned at CNN in Atlanta one summer and that hooked me. As I was graduating from UVA, I began looking for opportunities and got my first paid TV job as an entry-level producer at CNBC. I learned on the job.
Besides the pressing issues of politics and the ongoing pandemic, what topics are you hoping to explore in 2021 on Face the Nation and in your other work?
It is hard to predict the unpredictable, but to a certain extent we do know some of the critical issues that will confront us in 2021. That includes ending this pandemic through the complicated distribution of a vaccine. That will be the source of lots of political problems for months to come. Rebuilding the economy and the damage it has done to the most vulnerable in our society will take work. The Biden-Harris administration faces a long list of issues to confront. We’ll continue to bring our viewers all of them. I’ll also continue reporting on the global shifts and national security issues confronting the U.S.
Is there something viewers might be surprised to learn about you?
I have a toddler son who is the light of our world, and I’m pregnant with our second child. We’re expecting another boy this spring.