Morley Safer, an old-style, in-the-trenches newsman who was among the first reporters to bring the horrors of the Vietnam War onto the TV sets and into the living rooms of average Americans, died Thursday at his home in Manhattan. He was 84 and last week announced his retirement from his homebase of nearly half a century, the CBS Sunday newsmagazine 60 Minutes. Safer had been in declining health, but CBS, announcing his passing this morning, gave no cause of death:
The Toronto-born Safer joined 60 Minutes two years after its creation by Don Hewitt, the legendary CBS News producer who assembled a stable of veteran field reporters that included Dan Rather, Mike Wallace, Walter Cronkite, Ed Bradley, Charles Kuralt, Andy Rooney and Roger Mudd. Hewitt’s experiment in magazine-style, torn-from-the-headlines (and headline making) journalism quickly became the most-watched and most profitable program — of any type, not just news — in television history.
Safer’s first season as a regular 60 Minutes correspondent began with a story about the training of U.S. Sky Marshals. His final 60 Minutes report — number 919 — a profile of Danish Architect Bjarke Ingels, was broadcast in March. On Sunday, CBS broadcast a career tribute to him, Morley Safer: A Reporter’s Life, following the regular 60 Minutes telecast. In it, Safer discussed highlights of his career, including his 1965 CBS News dispatch that showed Marines torching the homes of Vietnamese villagers in the hamlet of Cam Ne. (Watch a video below in which Safer talks about covering the incident.) Also featured was a 1983 60 Minutes investigation that freed Lenell Geter, an African American Texan wrongly convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to life in prison. Geter credited Safer with saving his life.
The tribute also included Safer’s lighter side, with excerpts from encounters with Jackie Gleason, Katharine Hepburn and Anna Wintour, among others.
“Morley was one of the most important journalists in any medium, ever,” CBS Chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves said in the announcement of Safer’s death. “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.”
In addition to four du Pont Awards, Safer had won every major broadcast journalism award, including the Paul White Award from the Radio and Television News Directors Association in 1966 when he was only 35 – an award usually given for lifetime achievement. The other awards given to Safer over his long career include three Peabody awards, three Overseas Press Club awards, two George Polk Memorial awards, a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism first prize for domestic television, the Fred Friendly First Amendment award, 12 Emmys and a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French Government.
Here is a clip from Safer’s 2000 interview with the Archive of American Television in which he talks about covering the Cam Ne incident: