Viewers didn’t need to see Morley Safer’s reporting to feel its effects.
They could have almost heard the yowling from the Oval Office and the Pentagon after Safer’s 1965 expose of a U.S. military atrocity in Vietnam that played an early role in changing Americans’ view of the war.
They may have felt a flush of gratitude on learning that Safer’s 1983 investigation of justice gone awry resulted in the release of a Texas man wrongfully sentenced to life in prison.
Perhaps they headed to their wine shop with a heightened sense of purpose after word spread of Safer’s story that quoted medical experts who said red wine can be good for you.
Safer’s far-flung journalism got reactions and results during a 61-year career that found him equally at home reporting on social wrongs, the Orient Express, abstract art and the horrors of war.
That career came to an end this week, with a “60 Minutes” tribute on Sunday and, then, with Safer’s death, at age 84, on Thursday.
He is survived by his wife, the former Jane Fearer, and his daughter Sarah Safer.
Safer, who had been in declining health, watched Sunday’s program from his Manhattan home, CBS said, and shortly thereafter tweeted what would be his last dispatch: “It’s been a wonderful run, and I want to thank the millions of people who have been loyal to our 60 Minutes broadcast. Thank you!”
NBC News Special Correspondent Tom Brokaw visited with Safer last Friday, two days after his retirement was announced.
They spoke about the towering journalists of Safer’s era, men like The Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee and “60 Minutes” creator-executive producer Don Hewitt.
Safer said quietly, “All the great ones are gone,” Brokaw recalled in an email.
“No Morley, you’re still with us,” Brokaw replied before kissing Safer on the forehead.
During his 46 years on “60 Minutes,” Safer did 919 stories, from his first in 1970 about U.S. Sky Marshals to his last this March, a profile of Danish architect Bjarke Ingels.
Along the way, he exhibited style, toughness and, when it suited, a bit of mischievous wit, such as with his 1993 essay, “Yes, But Is It Art?”, which examined the relative merits of representational and abstract art, and outraged the contemporary art world.
He famously said, “There is no such thing as the common man; if there were, there would be no need for journalists.”
Safer was no common man. He cut a dashing figure as a bon vivant who for a time drove a Bentley bought with poker winnings. He seemed to bridge the gap between the glory ink-stained-wretch days of foreign correspondents (Ernest Hemingway was an early inspiration) and the blooming electronic age of TV news.
“Morley Safer helped create the CBS News we know today,” said CBS News President David Rhodes.
CBS chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves said Safer broadly impacted the news industry: “Morley was one of the most important journalists in any medium, ever.”
“Morley was a fixture, one of our pillars, and an inspiration in many ways,” said Jeff Fager, “60 Minutes” executive producer. “He was a master storyteller, a gentleman and a wonderful friend. We will miss him very much.”
Safer was outspoken in his allegiance to words more than pictures — heresy for most TV professionals, though comfortably in synch with Hewitt’s mandate at “60 Minutes.”
“What you’re aiming at are people’s ears rather than their eyes,” said the man who claimed to “not really like being on television,” yet made his peace with this “intimidating” medium: “The money’s very good,” he noted with a sly smile.
It was in 1970 that Safer joined “60 Minutes,” then just two years old and far from the national institution it would become. He claimed the co-host chair alongside a talk-show-host-turned-newsman named Mike Wallace.
During the next four decades, Safer’s rich tobacco-and-whiskey-cured voice delivered stories that ranged from art, music and popular culture, to “gotcha” investigations, to one of his favorite pieces, which, in 1983, resulted in the release from prison of Lenell Geter, the engineer wrongly convicted of a holdup at a fast food restaurant and serving a life sentence.
A memorable 1984 profile of Jackie Gleason took place in a bar around a pool table, where “the Great One” showed Safer and his viewers how it’s done — but not before Safer nearly ran the table.
And in 2011, he scored a sit-down with Ruth Madoff, who offered her first public description of the day she learned from her husband, Bernard, that he was running the biggest Ponzi scheme in history. More than 18.5 million viewers tuned in.
Safer won a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for his 2001 story on a school in Arizona specifically geared to serve homeless children.
Other honors include three George Foster Peabody awards, 12 Emmys and two George Polk Memorial Awards.
Safer, who was born in Toronto in 1931, insisted he was “stateless” and, as a reporter chasing stories around the globe, claimed, “I have no vested interests.” He eventually became an American citizen, holding dual citizenship.
He began his career at several news organizations in Canada and England before being hired by Reuters wire service in its London bureau. Then, in 1955, he was offered a correspondent’s job in the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s London bureau, where he worked nine years before CBS News hired him for its London bureau.
In 1965 he opened CBS’ Saigon bureau.
That August, “The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite” aired a report by Safer that rocked viewers, who, at that point, remained mostly supportive of the U.S. war effort in Vietnam. Safer had been invited to join a group of Marines on what a lieutenant described as a search-and-destroy mission in the tiny villages that made up Cam Ne.
But what he encountered there, and captured on film, was the spectacle of American soldiers employing their Zippo lighters to burn the thatched-roof, mud-plastered huts to the ground, despite having met with no resistance from village residents.
Safer’s expose ignited a firestorm.
President Lyndon Johnson gave CBS President Frank Stanton a tongue-lashing. “Your boys shat on the American flag yesterday,” he reportedly roared, and intimated that Safer had “Communist ties” and had staged the entire story. Safer feared for his safety in the company of angry U.S. soldiers and said the Pentagon treated him with contempt for the rest of his life.
“The Cam Ne story was broadcast over and over again in the United States and overseas. It was seized upon by Hanoi as a propaganda tool and by scoundrels of the left and right, in the Pentagon and on campuses,” Safer wrote in his 1990 memoir, “Flashbacks: On Returning to Vietnam.”
Safer rotated in and out of Vietnam three times, then, in 1967, began three years as London bureau chief.
In 1970, he was brought to New York to succeed original co-host Harry Reasoner (who was moving to ABC News) on an innovative newsmagazine that, in its third season, was still struggling in the ratings, and would rely on Safer and Wallace as its only co-anchors for the next five years.
In 1971, Safer won an Emmy for his “60 Minutes” investigation of the Gulf of Tonkin incident that began America’s war in Vietnam.
He quickly became a fixture at “60 Minutes” — and part of that show’s rough-and-tumble behind-the-scenes culture as the stature and ratings of the show took off.
Jeff Fager, then a producer for Safer, has kept on display a framed remnant of the curtain that was the landing place for a cup of coffee Safer once threw at him.
But Safer had an especially combative, if ultimately respectful, relationship with fellow “60 Minutes” pioneer Wallace.
Sunday’s tribute to Safer’s career — which notably contained no new interview footage with him — featured outtakes from an interview that Safer conducted with Wallace upon the latter’s retirement. During the sequence, the two of them were quarrelling even as they praised each other.
By 2006, Safer had reduced his output, accepting half-time status. But he remained after the departures of Wallace — who retired in 2006 at age 88, and died in 2012 — as well as Don Hewitt, who stepped down in 2004 at 81, and died in 2009, and Andy Rooney, who, at 92, ended 33 years as the resident essayist in October 2011, and died a month later.
“Mind if I smoke?” Safer asked an Associated Press reporter a few years ago as he closed his office door at “60 Minutes” while flouting health laws, inasmuch as his cigarette by then was halfway done. It felt appropriately old school, given Safer’s link to the days when legends — as well as smoke — filled those hallways.
“60 Minutes” carries on, but now the legends are gone.