‘Face the Nation’ Moderator Margaret Brennan Talks About Her Visit To Beijing, What’s Misunderstood In Rising U.S.-China Tensions And The Potential Fallout From A Ban Of TikTok

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Margaret Brennan recently was among a small number of reporters who traveled with Secretary of State Antony Blinken to China, a trip designed to turn down the temperature on simmering tensions with Beijing.

That was reflected in what it took for the Face the Nation moderator and CBS News chief foreign affairs correspondent to secure a visa for the trip, “Until I had that in hand, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to get on the Secretary of State’s plane,” she said, adding that she had permission to be in the country just seven days.

“That’s all we could get, and that is something we consider ourselves fortunate to get, because the Chinese government hasn’t been allowing in, at least for long-term visa access, journalists who weren’t already living in the country,” she said. The network does have a cameraman who has been living in China for decades but, reflecting the tension between the two countries, the Beijing government has been otherwise limiting access. There is a bit of a “tit for tat,” Brennan said, because of U.S. restrictions on Chinese state media access here.

With 2024 presidential candidates expected to make China a central feature of their campaign rhetoric, Brennan said that the complexities of the relationship can get lost. “Often in the American frame of reference, the Cold War with the Soviet Union is seen as the ultimate clash,” she said. “And this is more complicated, more complex and potentially more dangerous. And I don’t think America fully understands that. The Soviet Union just didn’t have the heft that China has.”

Season to date, Face the Nation (in its half-hour format) has topped its rivals in total viewership and the 25-54 demo. Brennan has been moderating Face the Nation for the past five years, and she soon will have a new broadcast rival: Kristen Welker, who is taking the helm of NBC News’ Meet the Press in the fall.

In a recent interview with Deadline, Brennan talked about the China tensions, the concerns about press freedoms in foreign reporting, and about changes in the Sunday morning landscape.

DEADLINE: In your interview with Secretary Blinken, he said that he thought that the visit helped establish greater stability in the U.S.-China relationship. To what extent do you think that was undermined when President Biden referred to Xi Jinping as a dictator?

BRENNAN: I remember looking at them going, ‘Oh.’ I think there’s always the public posturing that happens, and certainly you see that in Chinese propaganda. You see that in the very careful remarks that are made to the American press as well by U.S. officials. This is a very tense relationship, and there is no longer the illusion, and the Biden officials would tell you that, that America is going to change China. And they are accepting that it is going to sort of be this sort of tense clash on many, many fronts. And now it’s just about managing it. So it is not like the United States and China are going to be friends and allies here. So for President Biden to have said that, certainly, I am sure there were other diplomats who kind of winced when they heard it. It’s not that it isn’t factually correct in terms of the increasingly authoritarian nature of the Chinese state. And that’s one of the things that is actually causing some concern: The expansion of President Xi’s control over the economy, over business, over the ability to get access, it is a problem in some ways for investment and other things…I don’t think the entire trip was undermined. I think the United States and China are adversaries. They are just sort of trying to lower the tension enough to be competitors, but they are not friends.

DEADLINE: How different are press restrictions compared to previous trips you have taken to China?

BRENNAN: You can talk to people without cameras and maybe get a little bit more candidness, but it’s not like man on the street, ‘How are you feeling about politics these days in America?’ It is just a completely different environment in terms of the surveillance that the government carries out, and people don’t want to risk it talking to a journalist per se. I interviewed an American CEO of a health care company [who] founded seven different hospitals in China. She has been living there for about 40 years, so she has seen this incredible trajectory of the Chinese economy and growth. …What concerns her is that there is too much rhetoric in the United States, particularly among lawmakers in her view, in referring to China as an adversary, and justifying U.S. actions like investments in our own technology sectors as being a counter to China, versus just good policy that we should be pursuing anyway. The framing of us versus them is raising concern of people who have serious investments in China and live there. …That’s why this is such a complex, complicated relationship because of our economies being so intertwined.

DEADLINE: What happens if the U.S. bans TikTok? Wouldn’t that be an escalation of anti-Chinese rhetoric?

BRENNAN: There’s also that risk of the Chinese government miscalculating. American policymakers [are trying to gauge] what’s happening in the inner circle in China. They’re trying to gauge in Xi Jinping’s office what is happening in American politics. Do they misread the noise and take it seriously, the increased drumbeat? So that is a risk as well.

We’ve been hearing about TikTok for years and the national security risks that it poses. The United States government hasn’t acted on it. The Trump administration did try to force a change that got locked up in the courts. The Biden administration is trying to consider what is possible in terms of a ban. But if it is a national security threat, the policymakers have been kind of stuck in responding to it. …Some of these things are just not possible in terms of trying to force private industry to make choices on spinning off a division of the company, for example, and other kind of solutions that are being floated. But it is an issue that a lot of Americans understand because they can see it, they can play with it, they interact with it, and American parents know their kids are addicted to it. And American consumers may be told that they are at risk by using this, of being fed propaganda or being fed misinformation…but a lot of American consumers don’t seem to care and continue to use it. …You even see U.S. senators using the app.

DEADLINE: What have you learned about interviewing diplomats like Tony Blinken. They speak very cautiously.

BRENNAN: For diplomats, words matter to the extreme, because there is such risk in being misunderstood. There is the weight that you bring to the conversation when you are the representative of the president of the United States. … And that is why they speak as carefully as they do. And also [yoiu have to have an] understanding they know their words are not just being sold to a domestic audience, they are speaking globally, and translation matters, and the precision of your words matter to the extreme. You also have to learn to read the state media in places where there is state control like in China, and understand the degree to which propaganda is written before the meeting actually happens, and the degree to which it reflects what happened in the room privately.

DEADLINE: What concerns do you have about the U.S. media presence in China?

BRENNAN: We do have a wonderful cameraman who has been living there for decades, but if you’re trying to come in as a new correspondent or someone who isn’t already living there, that’s extremely difficult. And the reason it matters is you need to have people on the ground, to be able to get familiarity with local officials, to report accurately what they’re seeing. That firsthand experience is so important. This came up in my conversations with American diplomats, that they are actually pressing for this. It would reflect a certain amount of confidence on behalf of the Chinese government if they would allow for that. …So we will see if this opens up, and I know CBS would love to be able to go back.

DEADLINE: Kristen Welker will be taking over NBC News’s Meet the Press this fall. When that happens, all of the major Sunday shows will either have a woman as anchor or as co-anchor.

BRENNAN: It’s wonderful to see more women in that position on Sunday mornings. I think she is a wonderful person and I have known her for years, my time going back to being a White House correspondent. Shannon Bream over on Fox recently stepped into that role. Dana Bash is often on Sundays, though she shares airtime with Jake Tapper. Martha Raddatz is in that rotation as well [on ABC News’ This Week]. It says just the plain fact that we can do a really fabulous job if given an opportunity and certainly be rewarded with the trust of viewers at home. I think representation certainly matters, and I think we are beyond having to prove ourselves in that job. So I think it’s great. Welcome to Sunday.

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