Gayle King, Margaret Brennan, and Norah O'Donnell on Moderating Tonight's Democratic Debate

The women open up to InStyle about their careers, how they've prepped, and what we can expect tonight.

CBS Moderators Debate
Photo: Mary Kouw/CBS News

Tonight, seven contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination — Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Tom Steyer, and Mike Bloomberg — will debate in Charleston, South Carolina. In addition to being the first debate in the South, tonight's showdown will be the last debate before voters across sixteen states head to the polls on Super Tuesday, Mar. 3.

Hosted by CBS News, the debate comes at a critical time not just for voters, but for candidates: Without a significant boost, it could mark the last debate for multiple candidates who don’t have a path forward. (Sanders is currently considered the front-runner after claiming a victory in the Nevada caucuses last weekend.) As news breaks beyond the race for the nomination, the role of the journalists moderating the debate has intensified — there are too many policies that deserve attention, and too little time. And meeting a moment where voters feel engaged instead of overwhelmed requires steady, thoughtful questions.

Among the guiding forces asking those questions are three women journalists who are leaders within their respective beats: Margaret Brennan, moderator of CBS News’s Face the Nation and a CBS News senior foreign affairs correspondent, has a background covering global financial markets and the State Department, and has reported national security stories on nuclear negotiations with Iran and the standoff with North Korea; Norah O'Donnell, anchor and managing editor of CBS News, as well as an anchor of CBS News Election Specials and a 60 Minutes contributing correspondent, won an Emmy in 2018 for a story about a sexual abuse at the U.S. Air Force Academy; Gayle King, co-host of CBS This Morning, is known for her in-depth interviews with controversial figures like R. Kelly , as well as her exceptional reporting on hot button issues, including on-the-ground coverage of the Texas border in response to the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy.

Gayle King
Lazarus Jean-Baptist/CBS

According to data from Time's Up, which analyzed primary debates from 1996 to the present, 44% of debates included no moderators who were women, while 73 % included no moderators who were people of color. Last spring, UltraViolet Action and other organizations, including EMILY’s List, NARAL, and the National Women’s Law Center Action Fund, released a letter urging media outlets to ensure 50% of moderators were women, and at least 50% of moderators were people of color, in order to make election coverage “truly equitable.” (The DNC issued a rule that every Democratic debate must include at least one women moderator, as Refinery29 reported at the time.) The increased focus on moderators that represent the American people comes with a push to make politics and political coverage more inclusive overall.

Brennan, the only female host of one of the five big political Sunday shows, explained that after she had her son and came back to work, she realized the importance of first-person experience for journalists, and bringing your personal background, be it your gender or race, to your work. "I think it better informs you to anticipate, to empathize, to connect, and to hone in on things that other people in the country want to know," she said. O'Donnell mentioned her own version of a personal experience proving impactful to her work, noting, "I'm from a military family. I'm interested in military issues." She explained that her sister is serving abroad and her father served thirty years in the U.S. Army, and "that influences questions that I have about the military and foreign affairs."

Norah O'Donnell
Michele Crowe/CBS

Tonight’s women moderators (who will be joined by Major Garrett, Chief Washington Correspondent CBS News, and Bill Whitaker, 60 Minutes correspondent) will use their platforms, perspectives, and reporting prowess to ensure the American people are empowered to vote with confidence. Ahead of one of the most consequential debates of the 2020 primary cycle, we asked them about debate preparation, what makes South Carolina’s primary different, and what they’d tell their younger selves.

(Learn how to watch the debate, starting at 8PM ET, here.)

InStyle: At a time of increased polarization, how do you connect with viewers who feel disenfranchised by the current state of politics, or who feel overwhelmed by political news?

Brennan: These days, there's a lot of politics and less discussion of policy, because things aren't getting done legislatively, really. And we're in a campaign year, so perhaps that's not particularly unusual. It is keeping that electorate informed that is really fundamental to our job as journalists, and the purpose of journalism in many ways in terms of serving our democracy. Thomas Jefferson is often quoted — I went to [the University of Virginia], so I try to shout him out — saying that “information is the currency of democracy.” I love that quote because it gets at the point that there's a reason that you need to follow up and push for an answer to a question, and to get at the heart and the nub of it. And that is because, particularly at this moment of extreme partisanship, having someone talk straight or cut straight through to the fundamentals is so important.

King: I just feel at CBS we always take the position of giving you the facts and letting you decide. I get overwhelmed too. It used to be the news was 24/7 — now it’s 24 seconds. That’s how fast things change. And so you always have to be on top of your game to keep track of it. I also think we’re so polarized because we are not listening to each other. I’d like to see us do more of that. And be more open to that and people with another point of view.

O’Donnell: As a journalist, and this being the seventh presidential election that I've covered, I really believe that my role is to foster understanding, to help find the truth. I think not only is there increasing partisanship, I also think that there is so much information and disinformation out there that it is incumbent on journalists to help voters understand these complex issues and help uncover the truth. Not every voter out there can read six or seven newspapers a day. But I'm a journalist. I ask presidents and politicians tough questions. I do read six or seven newspapers a day and speak regularly with the campaigns. So it's my job, really, to curate all of that information and ask the tough questions that voters want to hear, and in a way that helps clarify the positions of these candidates.

Norah O'Donnell

Do you think there’s something fundamentally different about South Carolina's race versus other early-voting contests?

Brennan: I was out in Nevada on Friday and Saturday because I flew out there to speak with Joe Biden at the Nevada caucus. That was the first state in the West, but it was also kind of the most diverse state up to that point in the primary process. And you heard that change [reflected] in terms of what the candidates were engaged in and talking about out in Nevada, they were talking a little bit more about immigration, because about 19%of the population of that state was born outside the country. Here in South Carolina, the transition is to speaking more to the needs of people of color, and that is not a mistake. [Sixty percent] of self-identified Democratic primary participants are African American, and so candidates are keenly aware of it. I think on the debate stage you're going to hear from the candidates an attempt to appeal particularly on issues here, local to South Carolina and to that community. There's a reason they're speaking on these different issues in these last two states [rather] than in Iowa and New Hampshire, which are predominantly white.

King: It’s the first time you get to see a voting bloc where 60% are people of color.That alone makes it very different. And South Carolina races in the past have always been an important barometer [for primaries].

O’Donnell: This is the first contest in the South, where 60% of those who turn out in the South Carolina primary will be African American voters. This is going to be the most diverse — I should even say, where a minority population is the majority voting bloc in the primary. That’s why it's a test for these candidates of their support among the African American community, which has been a reliably Democratic base. In order to win an election, you have to not only turn out the most fervent supporters, you have to grow your base — that's the formula that goes into winning the presidential race.

Margaret Brennan
John Paul Filo/CBS

Is there anything you can share regarding your debate prep?

Brennan: I've gone about it the same way I do for Face the Nation every single Sunday, which is to try to immerse myself in what the candidate has spoken about, what they've explained their platforms are. What I think the function of a debate should be — I'm not saying it always is — but the utility to our democracy is that these candidates are trying to argue that they are not just qualified, but the best choice America can make to be the commander in chief. I would like to hear from them exactly what it is they're offering because I've heard a lot from them about why they're not like the current occupant of the White House. But I haven't necessarily heard them differentiate themselves from one another on a lot of different issues. I think a lot of questions have not been asked, particularly in this Democratic race, because President Trump in particular feeds the news cycle and dominates it. I think at this point, a lot of the candidates have gotten away with just saying, “I'm not going to be that guy. I'm going to be better.” But they haven't exactly explained what it is that they are offering, and that's what I hope to get to.

King: I look at it as going back to your college days and pulling an all-nighter. You want to make sure all the i’s are dotted and all the t’s are crossed. I feel very well prepared, because we have a team that’s been preparing for several weeks. But no matter how much you prepare, at the end of the day it’s live, and when it’s live anything can happen — especially this debate in particular, when you know it’s the last race before Super Tuesday, and chances are that some of the people on this stage on Tuesday won’t make it to the next round. And they know that, so there’s a lot at stake. I believe they’re all going to try to make a moment. And it’s our job to let people have that moment but also maintain some kind of order.

O’Donnell: There is an enormous amount of research and preparation that goes into a debate like this, and it's the entire organization of CBS News and this incredible teamwork to put this together. This process started months ago. The research has been ongoing. Every single thing that the candidates say is cataloged and compiled into their research positions on what they said on every single issue. For me personally, in terms of the preparation, above and beyond what is my regular reading of everything — I deep dive and talk to experts on each of these issues so that I fully understand what the stakes are so that I can ask the type of fair and tough questions that voters want to hear the answers to.

Margaret Brennan
Chris Usher/CBS News

As you prepare to moderate one of the most consequential debates of the 2020 primary cycle, what would you say to your younger self, at the start of your career?

Brennan: I would encourage myself to stay true to my instincts on what drives me, and what my instincts are in terms of trying to, you know, do the basics, do your homework, know what you're talking about when you ask a question. Know the issue as well as you possibly can. Constantly be a student of that moment.

King: That just makes me nervous hearing it even put that way. I would like to think that everybody ends that debate feeling like they’ve been heard. God can dream a bigger dream than you can dream for yourself, because never in my wildest dreams did I see this coming. I feel so lucky to be in this position, but at the same time, you have to create your own luck. I say this: Hard work is never, ever wasted.

O’Donnell: Continue to trust your gut. Trust your instincts. Remember that the quality of your life is built on the quality of your relationships. Build trust with everyone you meet, because that will continue throughout your life. One of the things I'm trying to do, and I've been less successful in the past couple of weeks, is just write down a little thought or a phrase every day about just what happened that day, because the great thing about being a journalist is having a front row seat to history, and meeting some of the most fascinating people in the world. I want to make sure I keep a personal record of that to memorialize it at some point.

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