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How a Coronavirus Expert Shook Up CBS’ ‘Face The Nation’

Scott Gottlieb, M.D.
 

Dr. Scott Gottlieb once spent Sunday mornings surfing through TV’s spate of venerable public affairs programs. In recent months, that has become impossible.

Gottlieb, a former FDA commissioner and a well-connected advisor in the worlds of medicine and health business, can’t sit back and look at the Sunday shows because he has over the past year become a central element of one of them. He has been interviewed on CBS’ “Face The Nation” so many times that he has become one of the most frequent non-journalist guests in the history of the show, which launched in 1954. Only former Senator John McCain has appeared more often on the show — 112 times — throughout its nearly six decades on the air. Gottlieb this past Sunday made his 73rd appearance on the program, surpassing Senator Lindsey Graham, who has been on the program 69 times, and Senator Bob Dole, who has been on 64. He has even been a more frequent guest than now-President Joe Biden, who has appeared on “Nation” on 56 different occasions.

“I have to make sure I’m holding Sundays and managing my weekends,” says Gottlieb in an interview. “There is sort of an expectation that I’ll be on the show, at least from my perspective.”

The Sunday anchor is usually the regular presence, but in “Nation’s” case, Gottlieb has continued to show up no matter who is in the chair. Margaret Brennan, the regular moderator, has been on maternity leave, and John Dickerson has filled in most weeks. Gottlieb, says Brennan, now serves as “our go-to every week for what do Americans need to know about the coronavirus.” His time on the program appears to be luring viewers: “Face The Nation” was the most-watched of TV’s Sunday programs during the 2020-2021 TV season.

For decades, TV’s Sunday public-affairs programs have largely focused on the political, and probably always will. Now, an unprecedented news cycle has forced producers to put a hard lens on the existential. Threats to the quality of human life on the planet are taking up more of society’s overall bandwidth. The idea of having a proficient pandemic expert on “Nation” should come as little surprise in these unique times. Yet Gottlieb’s sustained tenure is nothing less than seismic in the world of Sunday news TV, where many of the programs have followed their basic format for years. All the shows have their regulars, but few bring the same newsmakers back week after week after week.

As Gottlieb’s visits continued, “Nation” dropped one of the staples of the Sunday shows: a panel of experts chopping up the latest turns in national politics.  Producers would rather just find ways to deliver new facts to the public, says Mary Hager, the “Face The Nation” executive producer who has supervised the program since 2011.  “We have changed with the times, and I think Scott Gottlieb has been a very big part of that,” says Hager. “He has really helped in terms of answering questions and getting information out in a good, clear, solid, accurate fashion.”

On many Sundays, Gottlieb offers a direct take on what a pandemic-crimped future may hold. “I can’t think of a business right now that would put 30 unvaccinated people in a confined space without masks and keep them there for the whole day. No business would do that responsibly” he said on Sunday. “And yet that’s what we’re going to be doing in some schools. So I think we need to enter the school year with a degree of humility and prudence.” In other moments, he makes no-nonsense pronouncements.  “I wouldn’t be declaring mission accomplished,” he said on the July 4th broadcast of “Face The Nation.” “I think this is gonna be a long fight.”

Producers have had him on even when they book a major government expert like Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, or Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those officials offer the government perspective, says Hager, but “we still need to have Gottlieb on” to offer counterpoint or additional perspective. “There is still a person who is reading the tea leaves and looking at the trends.”

Gottlieb sees the Sunday program as a venue to help viewers gain perspective and see around the next corner, not to react to the latest headlines. “I really try to call it as I see it and I really try to look ahead, and try to figure out what people are going to need to know to continue to stay safe.”

He wasn’t in a cab with Hager and Brennan after CBS News’ telecast of the presidential debate in South Carolina last year, but he may as well have. As the coronavirus threat grew worse, the CBS News staffers wanted to find someone whose expertise spanned wider than most. Gottlieb had worked in the U.S Food and Drug Administration, during President Donald Trump’s tenure, is on the board of Pfizer (which is disclosed to viewers regularly) and was offering advice to different state governors.  His tweets on the White House’ response to the early part of the pandemic caught Brennan’s attention.  “We were in the midst of a fairly fast vaccine development and roll out,” Brennan recalls. “He has insight into the pharmaceutical world. He knows what it takes to get a vaccine expedited and what the process looks like.” Carol Ross Joynt, the show’s booking producer, set about reaching out to him.

Even Gottlieb must live with a few uncertainties. While he expects to be called to show up on “Nation” most Sundays, his presence is not guaranteed. When the show scored an exclusive interview with Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu in May, it meant taking up time that might typically have been accorded to Gottlieb. And when a bomb exploded in Nashville on Christmas morning last year, breaking news coverage took up time during the “Nation” broadcast.

Nor does he know what exact questions will be raised. “Early in the relationship, Margaret would ask questions and I would say, ‘Do you plan to ask me about that?’ And Margaret has a standard response. She would slow down and, in a very dignified way, say, ‘I haven’t written my questions yet,’” Gottlieb recalls. “Pretty soon, I got the message that that was Margaret’s polite way of saying, ‘There’s no way I’m going to tell you what I’m asking, so don’t ask me that.’”

In a different era, Gottlieb might not be able to make such frequent cameos. He already has a contributor agreement with CNBC, and cannot appear in most venues that are competitive with NBCUniversal-owned news outlets. But when he struck his contract with the business-news cable network, he secured a “carve out” for Sunday public-affairs programs, as he thought he might release a book about his time in the Trump administration. That meant he was free to appear on “Nation,” Gottlieb says, and CNBC recently agreed to keep that condition in his contract when he renewed his agreement there.

Given the nation’s recent coronavirus trajectory, Gottlieb will likely be making more appearances, not fewer. Brennan expects she will be asking him questions again “sooner, rather than later,” as she takes advantage of the leave she feels fortunate that CBS News has granted. “You do need some time to mentally, emotionally, just figure out how to juggle it all” particularly in this moment, she says. Her time away, she adds “will probably be less than the full allotted leave, but enough time that I think is needed.”

Gottlieb is proud of the contributions he has made on the show, but even he hopes he eventually won’t be needed to discuss the week’s events. “I look forward to a day when I can talk about anything other than the pandemic.”

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