Margaret Brennan ’98 faces alumnae at Georgetown – (Guest Submission)

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Dateline: Georgetown University
Sarah Jackmauh ’15, former Content Editor of the King Street Chronicle recently moderated a Question and Answer session with Ms. Margaret Brennan ’98 during an alumnae gathering at Georgetown University. Sarah shares the experience in this guest submission. 

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Earlier this month, Ms. Margaret Brennan ’98 sat face-to-face with President Donald J. Trump in a 45-minute segment aired on Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) News, with millions of voters tuned in for pregame coverage of Super Bowl LIII.
And, just two decades ago, Ms. Brennan donned a white gown for her graduation from Sacred Heart Greenwich.
Last week, I had the privilege of moderating a conversation with alumna Ms. Margaret Brennan ’98, who now serves as the host of CBS News’ Sunday broadcast, “Face the Nation.”

As part of a Sacred Heart Alumnae Network event, Director of Alumnae Relations Ms. Meghan Mara Ryan ‘01 organized a panel with Ms. Brennan at the School of Public Policy at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Head of School Mrs. Pamela Juan Hayes ’64 also attended the event along with several other members of the network: parents and trustees Ms. Lynn Newman and Ms. Kathleen O’Connor, as well as Sister Suzanne Cooke who represents the Sacred Heart Conference. Many current Georgetown students also gathered and represented Sacred Heart schools from Greenwich, 91st Street, Carrollton, Omaha, and Stone Ridge.

Pamela Juan Hayes ’64 addresses the alumnae gathering at Georgetown University.                                              Courtesy of Meghan Mara Ryan ’01

Ms. Mara Ryan asked me a few weeks in advance to prepare several questions for Ms. Brennan about her experiences as both a journalist and Sacred Heart graduate. This would not be my first time interacting with Ms. Brennan as she was the commencement speaker at my own Sacred Heart graduation in May 2015.

Ms. Brennan graduated from Sacred Heart in 1998 with a class of young women only about a quarter of the size of my graduating grade. Following Greenwich, Ms. Brennan enrolled at the University of Virginia as a member of the class of 2002. Initially hoping to pursue a career as a diplomat, she graduated with highest distinction with a Bachelor’s degree in a double-major of Foreign Affairs and Middle East Studies with a minor in Arabic. In her junior year, she studied Arabic at Yarmouk University in Irbid, Jordan under a Fulbright-Hays scholarship. Between junior and senior year, she also had a stint as an unpaid CNN intern.

After her graduation, Ms. Brennan went straight to New York City and began her career as a producer at Consumer News and Business Channel’s (CNBC) “Wall $treet Week with Louis Rukeyser” reporting financial news. She moved up at CNBC to a role as correspondent focusing on consumers in the financial crisis. Ms. Brennan also anchored and reported for Bloomberg Television before joining CBS News nearly a decade later in 2012. She was a White House correspondent throughout the end of the Obama administration and at the beginning of the Trump administration, as well as a senior foreign affairs correspondent before becoming the anchor of “Face the Nation.”

Ms. Brennan admitted that it was a difficult process transitioning from financial news to covering headline stories in the Middle East or White House.

Before beginning at CNBC, she was initially hesitant about her career in journalism due to its low salary. In fact, she disdainfully conceded that she went through two rounds of interviews at Bear Stearns, which, she expressed ironically, would have not turned out well. She told her father, who initially proposed a Wall Street career:

“I know if I’m sitting in a cubicle yes, I will be secure, … [but] I will not be happy,” Ms. Brennan said.
In her early days as a correspondent, Ms. Brennan explained that she “knew nothing” about financial markets. She adjusted right away by asking questions and trying to learn as quickly as possible; she even paraphrased and praised the abruptness of her senior year English teacher, Sister Kaye Cherry, Religious of the Sacred Heart, who shared her advice.

“If you don’t have the conviction of your opinion, then don’t raise your hand,” Ms. Brennan said.

And, in following this Sacred Heart credo, Ms. Brennan has proved its power. Her Super Bowl interview with the president is among the hundreds of other prominent projects she has covered, including two separate trips to Laos – one with former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the other with former President Barack Obama.

Needless to say, I was nervous throughout the interview. Not only had Ms. Brennan’s career advanced since my graduation (as she joined “Face the Nation” in 2018), but so too had my admiration of political journalists.
I started off my questioning by quoting her 2015 Sacred Heart commencement address, where Ms. Brennan quipped that “journalists have the responsibility of writing the first draft of history.”
I asked her to analyze what that comment means in 2019.

Sarah Jackmauh ’15 looks on as Margaret Brennan ’98 answers questions at an alumnae gathering at Georgetown University.            Courtesy of Mrs. Meghan Mara Ryan ’01

“I hope that truth remains in demand and people are looking for a draft of history, and tries to influence what is being written on both sides,” Ms. Brennan said.

Although her road to covering national and foreign politics came after a decade in financial news, she explained that her tenure at CNBC and Bloomberg prepared her for her current high-pressure role at “Face the Nation.”

“If you are curious, if you work hard, if you have analytic skills, … those are the things that you will find as useful skills you will continue to apply [anywhere],” Ms. Brennan said.

As a political journalist, she emphasized the importance of understanding consumer base and viewership. She noted that “to get the closest version of the truth you can,” reporters and producers alike must remain influenced by opinions on both sides of the political aisle. In the era of social media consumption and opinionated media platforms, she explains that the public must take an active role in digesting multiple news outlets instead of relying on one.

“People cannot necessarily just sit back as much. You need to seek to know a bit more,” Ms. Brennan said.
Regarding controversial policies like gun control and abortion, Ms. Brennan hopes viewers expose themselves to several sources to avoid misalignment.

“My goal on Sundays [on “Face the Nation”] is having someone learning something,” Ms. Brennan said. “Even if they’re angry.”
Despite extensive experience as a White House and foreign affairs correspondent, Ms. Brennan explained that the current administration demonstrates alternative strategies for communication, which makes journalists unable to “anticipate things as you formerly could.”

While the President utilizes social media outlets like Twitter, Ms. Brennan indicated that journalists are “on hyper-drive” in terms of fact-checking information and finding corroborative sources.

Ms. Brennan noted, “[there is] lots of pressure on journalists to get more than two sources on stories if you want to make sure you know what is happening,” especially as Congress remains polarized and the administration itself contains conflicting ideologies.
Meanwhile, the rapid changes in the political spectrum have also contributed to greater social involvement in politics, Ms. Brennan said.

“One of the great things that has resulted from this hyper-drive is that people talk more,” Ms. Brennansaid. “I hope, as a society, that’s a way people are investing more [in politics].”

In fact, there is evidence of the ‘hyper-drive’ in Congress. In the 2018 midterm elections, Capitol Hill saw the arrival of 35 new female House members and five new Senators. This is the most representation of women in Congress in history, according to pewresearch.org. In fact, four senators have already announced a bid for president in 2020:  Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA), Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MI), and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).

I asked Ms. Brennan if she could anticipate a change in Washington reporting and policy following the increased representation of women in Congress. Her answer was empowering.

“We don’t have to talk about the ‘female candidate’ right now, and that is encouraging,” Ms. Brennan said. “Women do not vote as a block.”

Ms. Brennan emphasized that many Americans have started to think more outwardly about voting and claiming a stake in national policy. Through increased media attention and public displays of political polarity, voters are personally impacted by national policy changes.

She noted specifically that these convictions have also compelled change for women through the #MeToo movement.
“People think twice,” Ms. Brennan said. “It was a wakeup call to me, I didn’t feel that I had been – or maybe I had been and it didn’t register – preparing for these moments.”

After I posed many questions on current politics, I opened the floor to the audience. The alumnae asked many important questions, but one in particular prompted Ms. Brennan to offer us an impactful anecdote as a White House reporter.
In the previously mentioned trip to Laos with Mrs. Clinton, Ms. Brennan encountered children with limbs missing due to leftover ammunition from the Vietnam War (which, she noted, was more than all the American munition used in the Second World War). It was the first time that a secretary of state had gone to mend relations with the island, according to The New York Times. Along with other reporters, the two women visited a prosthetics factory and interacted with explosion survivors.
Ms. Brennan returned to Laos and the factory later during the Obama administration with the president himself. They met a local teenager who had a prosthetic limb from an American explosive. To Ms. Brennan’s surprise, the boy addressed Mr. Obama.

“We found this child who amazingly wanted to talk to us… and talk about how important it was to him to have that recognition,” Ms. Brennan explained.  “He was so honored to see American coming and see the work that was being done.”

And so, when Sacred Heart alumnae and current Georgetown student Lizzie Considine ’16 asked how Ms. Brennan copes with traumatic news coverage, she answered with this story.

“Those are the kind of hopeful stories that keep me going in these horrible circumstances.”

Featured Image by Karina Badey ’19