Morley Safer, Legendary ‘60 Minutes’ Reporter, Dies at 84
Emmy-winning newsman Morley Safer, one of the first reporters to convey the brutality of the Vietnam War to America’s TV viewers and a mainstay on “60 Minutes” for 46 years, died Thursday in his Manhattan home, CBS News reports. He was 84.
Safer was in declining health when he announced his retirement last week. CBS News last Sunday broadcast a long-planned special hour to honor the occasion, “Morley Safer: A Reporter’s Life,” which Safer watched in his home.
“Morley was one of the most important journalists in any medium, ever,” said CBS Chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves. “He broke ground in war reporting and made a name that will forever be synonymous with ’60 Minutes.’ He was also a gentleman, a scholar, a great raconteur — all of those things and much more to generations of colleagues, his legion of friends, and his family, to whom all of us at CBS offer our sincerest condolences over the loss of one of CBS’ and journalism’s greatest treasures.”
A longtime correspondent as well as a writer for documentary series such as “CBS Reports,” Safer described his legacy to broadcast journalism as “a pretty solid body of work that emphasized the words, emphasized ideas and the craft of writing for this medium.” The 12-time winner of news and documentary Emmys, including a lifetime achievement award in 2003, from 39 nominations also won three Peabody Awards.
He left an indelible impression on broadcast journalism in 1965 with a key report from Vietnam broadcast on “CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite.” The report depicted Safer accompanying U.S. Marines on a military action into a complex of villages called Cam Ne. His cameraman captured images of Marines using flamethrowers and cigarette lighters to set fire to thatched huts.
The airing of the report, one of the first to document the unsettling details of Vietnam for U.S. TV audiences, marked a turning point in public opinion of the war, while the Pentagon and the White House accused Safer and CBS News of undermining the war effort.
Safer was called a communist, and the Johnson administration attempted to discredit him and the network.
Describing the impact of the broadcast, Safer said, “It was happening on television, uncensored, either in picture or commentary. There was a realization — perhaps least of all by the press, but certainly by the military and maybe by the public — that the rules have all changed.”
In the aftermath of the report, the Pentagon, appalled by the footage captured by Safer’s crew, developed new procedures for conducting search-and-destroy missions.
Safer first became a correspondent for CBS News in 1964, based in the London bureau. In 1965, he opened the CBS News bureau in Saigon, serving two tours in the war.
In 1967, he became CBS News’ London bureau chief, covering Europe, Africa and the Middle East. He also returned to Vietnam to provide continuing coverage of the war.
He joined “60 Minutes” as a correspondent in December 1970, following in the footsteps of Harry Reasoner. He remained with the program for the rest of his career, more than 40 years.
Safer won his first news and documentary Emmy in 1979 for “Teddy Kollek’s Jerusalem,” a profile of the mayor of Jerusalem.
Original “60 Minutes” exec producer Don Hewitt has called Safer’s report “Lenell Geter’s in Jail” the finest hour in the history of the long-running series. The report, which aired in December 1983, documented new evidence in the conviction of an engineer for armed robbery and sentenced to life in a Texas prison. It garnered widespread attention when it aired. The evidence uncovered led to Geter’s release from prison.
For the report, Safer won an Emmy for outstanding investigative journalism.
In 1999 he won an Emmy for a report titled “The Forgotten Veterans,” which spotlighted the 10,000 female veterans of the Vietnam War.
A Safer piece that aired on “60 Minutes” in 2001, “School for the Homeless,” about separate schools for homeless children, drew the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award’s first prize for domestic television.
Over the years with “60 Minutes,” Safer snagged profiles with elusive figures such Vogue’s Anna Wintour, whom he interviewed in 2009. The exclusive set the fashion industry abuzz.
Later in his career, Safer also appeared on TV shows and in films about journalism. In 1993, he played himself on an episode of “Murphy Brown.” And in 2010, he was in the film “Morning Glory,” starring Harrison Ford, Rachel McAdams and Diane Keaton, again playing himself.
In the 1990s, he provided narration to documentaries on PBS, including episodes of “The American Experience” and “American Masters.”
In 2009, Safer donated his papers, including those related to his reporting on the burning of Cam Ne, to the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. Walter Cronkite’s papers are also part of the center’s collection.
The center’s executive director called the donation “particularly fitting,” noting that “Cronkite deeply admired Safer as one of the very best correspondents in the history of CBS News.”
In addition to his Emmy and Peabody awards, Safer received two George Polk Memorial Awards, three Overseas Press Club Awards, and two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards. The Radio/Television News Directors Assn. bestowed Safer with its Paul White Award, the org’s highest honor. He was nominated for WGA Awards in 2004, 2005 and 2006.
Safer was born in Toronto and began his career as a newspaper reporter in Canada and England. He moved into broadcast journalism as a producer and correspondent for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
His book “Flashbacks: On Returning to Vietnam,” published in 1990, documented his 1989 trip to Vietnam to film a report for “60 Minutes.” It became a bestseller.
Safer is survived by his wife, the former Jane Fearer, and a daughter.