CBS News Anchor Margaret Brennan on Working Amid a Pandemic: "It's a Constant Adjustment"

Margaret Brennan - Face the Nation - February 21, 2018 -Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy of Chris Usher/CBS

Sunday morning news show 'Face the Nation' is on a two-week winning streak and has seen a major boost in viewers amid coverage of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Face the Nation, CBS News' Sunday morning franchise, is having a moment. Hosted by Margaret Brennan, who took over from John Dickerson in early 2018, FTN led the way in total viewers last weekend for the second straight week.

The May 17 edition of the show brought in 3,862,000 total viewers, ahead of Meet the Press' 3,625,000 total viewers, though the NBC staple edged out CBS in the 25-to-54 key audience demographic. A week earlier, CBS beat NBC by 62,000 total viewers, coming in second place in the key demo. (For the month of May, FTN has run in second among Sunday morning broadcast network shows.)

While both broadcast and cable news shows have seen increased viewership amid the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic, FTN has enjoyed a 34 percent year-over-year boost in both total viewers and key-demo viewers during the 2019-20 programming season.

"It's been heartening to see the choices that we're making are resonating," Brennan tells The Hollywood Reporter.

At 40, Brennan is the youngest of the Sunday morning franchise anchors, and the only woman, compared to NBC's Chuck Todd (48) and ABC's George Stephanopoulos (59). She gave birth to her son, Eamon, in September 2018, after anchoring her show on her due date.

When do you think you fully acclimated to the "new normal" of working amid the pandemic?

I feel like it's constantly changing. It's odd — I was thinking yesterday that I have now been on quarantine and working from home longer than I was on maternity leave. I took a fairly short maternity leave. The upside is getting to see my son more now as a toddler. In terms of the daily flow, it's extra challenging when there's a toddler in the background when you're doing radio interviews or TV. … It's a constant adjustment. … You just need to constantly stay flexible, re-adjust, and figure out how you get done when you need to get done in the changing environment that you're in.

With all the limitations in place, have you been able to put on the show every week that you want to put on?

I'm very proud of what we've been able to do over the past few months, particularly in terms of the editorial content. That is always where my head is most focused. … I think this is most difficult for the producers and technicians who have to figure out how to turn those ideas into reality with a staff that's literally cut in half because we have to put people in rotation. We don't have the full staff of the show, which is small in the first place — we don't have the full staff in on Sundays. … I'm sympathetic to the rest of the team, because I know it's put a heavier lift on them every week.

How do you think television news shows will change long-term? Do you expect to be doing in-person interviewing in a year or two from now?

There's really no substitute for being able to sit across from someone, have eye contact, see and read their body language, hear the inflection in their voice in a real way. We've done a good job at keeping the editorial up there with the show, but it is always a better conversation, in my personal point of view, when you can sit across from someone. … So, I hope and I do expect for that to continue to be the case, that for the big interviews, you still will want to do it in person.

On Tuesday night, the CBS Evening News did not air as scheduled on the East Coast due to a technical issue. Have you experienced any major technical issues?

You say that and I'm like crossing my toes and fingers and knocking on wood. Everyone in the age of coronavirus is trying things out in different ways with the technology and with the staffing. When we launched in the new studio, which seems like a million years ago, we had some hiccups off the first episode or something and we just kept going through it. That's live television these days. We're all relying very heavily on people figuring out how to do more with less, under tremendous strain and with obstacle courses in the way. 

What do you make of the recent success of your broadcast in attracting viewers?

It's been heartening to see that the choices we're making are resonating, because we've decided to do things in a different way than one would typically expect the Sunday shows to go.

President Trump has recently attacked several of your CBS News colleagues, including anchor Norah O'Donnell and White House reporters Paula Reid and Weijia Jiang. How have you approached the president's personal attacks on your fellow journalists?

I've been on the receiving end of it. The president has called us Deface the Nation, and done that more than once. Look, I think it's a distraction. … I made a conscious choice of viewing it as a distraction and viewing it as a deflection, and not engaging, because it's not about me. … It has the consequence, intended or otherwise, of elevating the work that they are doing. … I think it's about the work. It's not something worth responding to.

What's it like being a mom in this tumultuous period?

I'm fortunate that my son is so young, in many ways. Because while it means that you're chasing him around to protect him from himself, he doesn't really know what's going on. I think about some of those parents and friends of mine who have to turn their kitchen tables into home offices and school rooms and juggle that, trying to teach their kids. That's pretty hard. So, I feel pretty fortunate that he is where he is right now. His world is between these walls anyhow, so he doesn't know any different that life as he knew it has disappeared. 

Has being a mom given you a new perspective on anchoring the show every week?

You're just more aware of things because as you are looking at it through their young eyes — sometimes rediscovering things for the first time. For political issues, I have a very new appreciation for paid family leave and the necessity of that, frankly. I had a new appreciation for all the other people in my office who were about to have kids or coming back from maternity leave and everything they had to juggle. Seeing it in so many ways as a strength and a super power that women can do all of that at once, rather than an inhibition. I just viewed it differently.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.