The impeachment inquiry has gripped Washington in a kind of information warfare, putting added pressure on Face the Nation and other D.C. Sunday morning shows to sift through spin and call out obfuscation. That will be even more the case in the coming weeks, as the inquiry enters a new phase, with plans to launch public impeachment hearings November 13.
For Margaret Brennan, who has moderated Face the Nation since last year, the impeachment inquiry already has posed a challenge in getting guests to diverge from their scripted talking points. “It’s hard, and it’s going to get harder, because I’ve just noticed, particularly when people are kind of going to their battle lines, they stick to the talking points, more and more, louder and louder, shouting over you as you’re asking your question, and that is frustrating,” she said.
“And I’m sure it is frustrating for viewers who want to say wait a second, ‘What is this really about?’ Because there are a lot of people according to even our own polling who remain a little confused and unconvinced so far in terms of what they’ve heard from the impeachment inquiry. We’re all living it and following it moment by moment, but our viewers may not be.”
The upcoming open impeachment hearings will be a test of the public’s interest, as the networks plan live coverage during the day. Brennan sees it as a key television moment, as each lawmaker will use their time to get “about five minutes to get his or her news clip to his home market or her home market.”
“And so it’s going to be vitriolic,” she said. “If you think it is already, get ready for what the public hearings are.”
Brennan, who is also CBS News senior foreign affairs correspondent, also talked about her recent interview with Vice President Mike Pence and her Super Bowl sit-down with President Donald Trump. But she also talked about the role of Face the Nation and other Sunday shows in this hyper-partisan moment, and why it isn’t all that different from what it was when the show debuted 65 years ago. The anniversary is on Thursday.
DEADLINE: How do you think the relevance of Face the Nation and other Sunday shows has changed in the digital age?
BRENNAN: I think there are a few things you have this moment of changing consumption and media habits in the middle of this tornado of news at this incredibly big time. And you layer impeachment on top of that, and it’s created this incredible, almost explosive atmosphere. I think for us on Sundays, it’s trying to not be that, and be what I hear from people, which is, “Can we listen to each other again?” We try to do that now, because I think there is a lack of that out there. Hour by hour, the news cycle, I think there’s sort of a “hair on fire” sense to it. And so that’s how I see sort of the tradition of where they were 65 years ago, relating to where we are now, which is still trying to listen to each other and have context and perspective.
DEADLINE: How does this polarization during the impeachment inquiry affect how you book guests?
BRENNAN: It’s hard to find people these days who aren’t on their talking points. Because the battle lines have been drawn, because there is so much to be lost if you don’t. I asked Vice President Pence about four times [on October 27], and kept going back together to get an answer on, “So, were all these people [testifying in the impeachment inquiry] under oath lying? What is the difference between what they are testifying to and what the White House position is?” And it was hard, and he didn’t move off that talking point, no matter how many times I asked. But I have to believe that by being persistent in the questioning, being sharp in the phrasing, making clear to the audience what you’re talking about here, what’s actually at issue, and then not getting a straight answer. Viewers know what that is. Viewers, whether it’s Democrat or Republican, hear that for what that is.
DEADLINE: Do you feel it is your role at a certain point, especially at this time with the impeachment inquiry, is to say, “Hey listen, that’s just misinformation that you’re trying to put out there.” To go that far? I’ve talked to other hosts who’ve said I think we have reached that point. For example Chuck Todd.
BRENNAN: The choice we make on this program is to try to fact check. It is to try to provide that context or say, “Wait a second, that’s, that’s what your belief is. But the facts are X, Y and Z.” We try to do that. But my job is literally called moderator. I’m not there to debate the guests that we’ve had on. … I think for us, CBS and certainly Face the Nation have really tried to be a place where you’re not getting into the food fight. It’s not hyper partisan. I do believe there’s a hunger in this country to have a civil conversation and to listen to each other again and that’s what we try to do. That’s what I try to do.
DEADLINE: Has it become more difficult to fact check guests in real time?
BRENNAN: Yes, it’s live television. And I also think audiences are turned off by constant interruptions, and so you’re sort of choosing, “What, do I wait the five minutes to until the guest takes a breath to fact check here? Which thing do I quibble with?” Yes, it’s harder and that is just what the job of a moderator is too. And to also follow up…I had the chairman of the Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff on a few weeks ago and pressed him on some of the political mistakes, as he kind of characterized it, that he had made in terms of coming out a bit too strongly in some of these hearings with his own talking points in a way that gave an opening to attack for Republicans. So it’s calling to account and being consistently tough on both sides.
DEADLINE: How challenging was Vice President Pence? Is he more challenging that any other Washington figures?
BRENNAN: I’ve talked to him in a number of different times. I did an interview with him at 4 o’clock in the morning once after the hostages from North Korea were released too. So I’ve seen him in a lot of different venues, and the one thing that is incredibly consistent with the Vice President, is that he’s going to say what he’s going to say. You can come at it just about every which way, and he really is by the book, almost immovable. So that can be challenging, but I found him to be and his staff to be very respectful of the press. And I did appreciate that.
DEADLINE: Is that a lot different that dealing with the President?
BRENNAN: It’s just a totally different experience as a White House correspondent. Look, the president is the most accessible to TV cameras that we’ve ever seen. So it’s hard for television networks to complain about that access. On the Face the Nation platform we are pretty consistently talking to White House officials most Sundays. So they also engage with the Sunday shows which is a good thing, because it’s a completely different venue than shouting questions on the way to the President’s helicopter, when you can sort of make out the question, but not really, and you can’t follow-up, and there’s no White House briefing. And you can’t follow up on a tweet.
DEADLINE: Your interview with Trump. What surprised you the most?
BRENNAN: I’d been doing my prep work, I spoke to Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes, who used to have this job. And she had interviewed President Trump a number of times, and I said, ‘What do I expect?’ And she said to me, “Think about who [will] walk into the room, and I’m not sure what to tell you in terms of who you’re gonna get that day.” Meaning [that] when I spoke to him, it was right on the back of that government shutdown. … I wasn’t sure how he was going to feel walking into the room that day. That was more tricky things, to sort of get my head around, in gaming out, is he going to be argumentative? How do I get away from just talking about the standoff with the Speaker? And he really I think enjoyed the back and forth, perhaps also because I talked about things he doesn’t often get a chance to talk about in terms of national security. We did an extended back and forth on the fact that his intelligence chief just testified in a way that contradicted some of what the President’s public statements and personal beliefs. So I thought he kind of enjoyed it, and that surprised me.
DEADLINE: How do you think your gender plays into how people respond to you when you interview them?
BRENNAN: To be honest, and I don’t know the clear answer to that, I’m still figuring it out. I see it in feedback. I think information lands in a different way, depending on who the conduit for that information is, who the interviewer is. I’m still judged, ultimately by my ratings and the performance and the interviews. But in terms of how people hear the questions you ask how you ask them, I do think people receive that differently.
I had someone at an event I did in Philadelphia come up to me, and she had a daughter was in her 20s. She was older and her daughter was a fan and said all sorts of nice things. And the mother said, “You know, I really like watching you.’ I said, ‘Oh thank you.’ And she’s like, ‘But I didn’t think I would.’ She’s like, “I just really don’t like women asking, you know, just talking about politics and asking questions like that, but you do a really good job.” I didn’t know whether to be insulted or flattered or what it was exactly, but there are people who see my gender before they see me or hear my question. And I’m aware of that, but I can’t change what I’m doing because of that.
DEADLINE: And my final question is what can we look forward to in these next couple of weeks with the impeachment inquiry?
BRENNAN: The move to the public testimony will change it. This is a television broadcast culture, where each questioner is going to get about five minutes to get his or her news clip to his home market or her home market. And so it’s going to be vitriolic. If you think it is already, get ready for what the public hearings are. The private testimonies we’ve seen so far have been remarkable.
Just as someone who covered the State Department for so long and knowing public servants, in my personal life and in this role, it is an incredible thing to put people in the position of choosing between, honoring their oath to the Constitution and following a subpoena that compels them versus following the orders of the President of the United States and the White House that they’re serving under.
DEADLINE: And it is going to be such a television moment to see them in that public spotlight.
BRENNAN: For the Democrats who want to sell this to their constituents back home, as a good use of time, these public testimonies are going to be key to saying, “It was worth it.” And whatever case they’re trying to build going into 2020. And for Republicans, in some ways for those running for reelection, it may be a test of, “How strongly are you going to stand with the President, regardless of what the testimony is?” This is going to broaden the scope, I’m sure, now that Republicans can try to bring in their own witnesses. So get ready.