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Margaret Brennan Hopes to Build ‘Nation’ at CBS

As moderator of one of the nation’s longest-running Sunday news programs, Margaret Brennan often finds herself jousting with top government officials. She says she’s looking for facts, not a fight.

“There is a place for the hot take. There is a place for the tweet,” says Brennan. But CBS’ “Face The Nation,” she says, is not that place.

Brennan is the newest entrant in a very different sort of TV-news battle. Sunday public-affairs programs like “Face” and its competitors –  NBC’s “Meet the Press,” ABC’s “This Week,” Fox’s “Fox News Sunday” and CNN’s “State of the Union” – typically win plaudits not for showcasing the reporting of other staffers, as most TV news programs do, but for getting America’s top officials to give up some bit of information that could affect economies, elections or public well-being.

Brennan, who retains her role as CBS’ senior foreign affairs correspondent, brings a different type of expertise to the job, which she took in February of last year. She has spent years covering business, markets and international relations – topics that have quickly become more important during the presidency of Donald Trump.

And she thinks Sunday programs have taken on new importance in an era when the White House has for all intents and purposes stopped holding daily press briefings.”It’s one of the few places you can turn to and see members of the administration or lawmakers engaged and be asked follow-up questions,” she notes.

She has taken the reins of the show at a tumultuous time for her employer. CBS News is in the midst of an overhaul of most of its programming under its new president, Susan Zirinsky. She has placed new anchors at “CBS This Morning” and “CBS Evening News” and has set new executive producers at “60 Minutes,” “48 Hours” and the morning program, but has left “Face The Nation” alone, pairing Brennan – just the second female anchor to lead “Face” over the course of its 55-year history (Lesley Stahl was first), to move forward while paired with Mary Hager, who has been executive producer of the program since 2011.

“Face The Nation has carved out a lane for themselves where they break news and cut through the clutter on Sunday with Margaret’s insightful and probing interviews. We’re proud of what the program delivers every Sunday to help further understanding for the audience of complex and often under-reported issues,” says Zirinsky. “Margaret’s broad range of expertise – from foreign affairs, business journalism, to political reporting – adds enormous value to the table every Sunday morning.”

As is the case with all the Sunday programs, the network has had to grapple with the show’s viewership levels. “Face The Nation,” is the nation’s second most-watched program, behind NBC’s “Meet the Press.” It has seen viewership dip in the current season, with the critical 25-to-54 audience, most favored by advertisers, down 5.3% – though that is less than losses in the demographic incurred by each of its broadcast competitors in the same time period. The show’s overall audience is down about 5.2% for the same time period, more than viewership dips at each of the other Sunday broadcast programs.

Hager thinks “Nation” is making bigger strides in its content at a time when news viewers are demanding more information and fewer theatrics around trying to get it. “I think Sunday shows are getting further away from spin, and I think we are still doing a better job at kind of what we have always been trying to focus on – what is important for viewers, what the takeaways are, what they can learn, as opposed to putting the boxing gloves on and yelling back and forth.”

The challenge in getting that done was on full display this past Sunday, as Brennan tried to quiz Rep. Liz Cheney, the Wyoming Republican, on President Trump’s tweets suggesting four female Democratic lawmakers “go back” to their countries of origin, even though three of them were born in the United States.  Cheney tried to pivot to other talking points, while Brennan tried to keep the conversation focused on the tweets.

Brennan says she’s no pushover.  After all, this is someone who used to hold forth from trading floors for CNBC. “Having traders elbow you while you are doing live TV is a good education in something,” she quips.

The anchor points to her recent sit-down with President Trump – used for CBS’ pre-game programming before Super Bowl LIII – as one of her bigger achievements since taking the “Nation” spot. Trump in the previous year had declined to take part in any sort of pre-game interview, a segment that had become something of a TV tradition under President Obama.

Landing White House officials has become tougher in the current era, says Hager. “You used to have to go on a rotation with the White House, and now it’s whoever they want to put out to wherever they want to put them out. You have to build relationships,” she says. “We want to be fair with people. We want to be upfront. We don’t want to blind side people. We don’t want to do ‘gotchas.’ If they’ve said something or they have changed their position, we still need to ask them why, because it’s a good way to get them talking about what’s important to them and how they have changed.”

The pair will be working soon to land more expansive interviews with various Democratic presidential candidates, even trying to meet them in the field if schedules permit. The candidates ought to have “a good conversation and grasp of the issues, and we are going to push on some of those things,” says Brennan. “I think viewers and voters deserve that.”

She continues to work to manage her “Nation” job with other responsibilities – namely a ten-month-old son (Brennan took two months of maternity leave during her early tenure on the show) and her role covering foreign affairs. “’Balance’ is not the right word,” says Brennan, who says she is constantly checking with sources to keep up on the news as well as visiting lawmakers and officials to stay briefed for Sunday.

But her big focus is to make sure “Nation” viewers come away with something new after tuning in each week. Viewers want information, not bloviation. “Talk is cheap, and that is a business model,” says Brennan. “That isn’t what we do.”

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