Morley Safer, '60 Minutes' Chronicler of the Offbeat, Dies at 84

  • He won 12 Emmys and three Peabody awards in 52 years with CBS
  • His reporting from Vietnam influenced U.S. opinion against war

Morley Safer, the Canadian-born television journalist who contributed wit and worldliness to CBS News’s flagship “60 Minutes” program for 46 years, has died. He was 84.

Safer died Thursday in Manhattan, where he had a home, CBS News reported on its website. He also had a residence in Chester, Connecticut. Safer had retired just last week, and CBS News broadcast an hour-long tribute to him on May 15. His last story aired on March 13.

"Morley was one of the most important journalists in any medium, ever," CBS Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Leslie Moonves said in a statement.

Safer in 2009.

Photographer: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty

The winner of 12 Emmy awards and three Peabody awards, Safer was the third correspondent hired for “60 Minutes,” after Mike Wallace and Harry Reasoner.

For CBS News, Safer influenced public opinion against the Vietnam War with his report on Cam Ne, a Vietnamese village burned to the ground by U.S. Marines. For “60 Minutes,” which he joined in 1970, he skewered modern art, chronicled a tango craze in Finland, visited a home in Milan for aging opera singers and helped free a wrongly convicted man from a life sentence behind bars.

An estimated 18.5 million people watched his 2011 interview with Ruth Madoff, the wife of Bernard Madoff, mastermind of one of the largest financial frauds in history. In the interview, she insisted she had no idea that her husband’s business was actually a Ponzi scheme. She also said she and her husband, two weeks after his arrest, tried to kill themselves by overdosing on sleeping pills.

“Morley has a great eye for stories, both the hard-edged and the softhearted, and certainly the offbeat,” Don Hewitt, the founder of “60 Minutes” and executive producer for its first 35 years, wrote in his 2001 memoir.

Foreign Correspondent

Dapper in patterned shirts and colorful ties, Safer carried the cosmopolitan air of the roving foreign correspondent he once was. Well into the word-processing age he insisted on composing his stories on a manual Royal typewriter, which he said produced copy “that has some relationship to my humanity,” according to a USA Today profile in 2000.

Safer in the 1970’s.

Photographer: by Bachrach/Getty Images

“Morley can cover war in Beirut in a navy blazer, white slacks and a pocket square and report it as if he were reporting on a cocktail party or a croquet match,” said Steve Kroft, one of his many colleagues over his four decades on the show, according to USA Today.

In a 2000 interview with the Academy of American Television, Safer said “60 Minutes” fed a public “hunger” for longer, more diverse stories than offered by the nightly news.

“By the third or fourth year of being on at 7 o’clock on Sunday, we became something like what Life magazine was to our house when I was a kid: you expected it through the mailbox,” he said. “It became one of the events of the week.”

Early Focus

Morley Safer was born on Nov. 8, 1931, in Toronto, one of three children of Jewish immigrants Max Safer, an upholsterer, and the former Anna Cohn. 

He left college after several weeks at the University of Western Ontario to begin pursuing journalism. “I wanted to be a reporter; it was the only thing I wanted to be,” he said.

Safer learned the ropes at the Woodstock Sentinel-Review and the London Free Press, both of Ontario, then at the Oxford Mail newspaper and Reuters news service in London.

He was working as a roving international correspondent for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. when CBS News hired him in 1964 as its London-based correspondent. The following year, he opened CBS’s bureau in Saigon and began covering the Vietnam War.

His report on the burning of the South Vietnamese village of Cam Ne, broadcast on Aug. 5, 1965, made the list of 100 best works of 20th-century American journalism compiled by New York University’s journalism department.

Witnessing Carnage

As Safer recalled in an interview for a PBS series, “Reporting America at War,” the Marine Corps unit he was accompanying “moved into the village and they systematically began torching every house -- every house as far as I could see, getting people out in some cases, using flame throwers in others.”

Safer reporting during the Vietnam war.

Source: CBS via Getty Images

Safer’s South Vietnamese cameraman, Ha Thuc Can, set down his camera and stepped forward to stop the burning of one house, where he and Safer and a sergeant traced the sounds of crying to an underground shelter holding a family, “including a practically newborn baby,” Safer recalled.

After the family was coaxed out, “the house was torched, as every house along the way was torched, either by flame throwers, matches, or cigarette lighters -- Zippos.”

The report was denied and denounced by U.S. military and political leaders. CBS President Frank Stanton denied an oft-repeated story that President Lyndon Johnson personally cursed him out on the telephone.

‘Brutal Power’

“This conjured up not America, but some brutal power -- Germany, even, in World War II,” Safer said. “To see young GIs, big guys in flak jackets, lighting up thatched roofs, and women holding babies running away, wailing, this was a new sight to everyone, including the military, I suspect. Which is perhaps one reason why there was such immediate denial.”

He was London bureau chief when CBS introduced “60 Minutes” in 1968. ABC News plucked Reasoner in 1970 to become an anchor of its nightly newscast, and Hewitt enlisted Safer to join Wallace at “60 Minutes.” Reasoner would return to the show in 1978 and remain until his retirement in 1991. Hewitt died in 2009, Wallace in 2012.

Hewitt, in his memoir, “Tell Me a Story,” recalled Safer agreeing to the job with one condition: “When ‘60 Minutes’ folds, I go back to London.” That would never happen.

In a 1983 story he called one of his favorites, Safer took up the cause of Lenell Geter, a black college graduate from South Carolina working as a mechanical engineer in Texas, who had been sentenced to life in prison for holding up a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. Safer’s report, building off the work of journalists in Texas, led to Geter being freed.

Art Furor

An amateur painter, Safer created a furor in the art world with a 1993 report, “Yes, but is it Art?” It poked fun at the work of contemporary artists such as Cy Twombly, Robert Gober, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jeff Koons, and at the buyers who were paying top dollar at auctions.

“I discovered something that I absolutely could barely believe,” Safer said in a 2012 interview with C-Span, “that when you question someone’s taste in art, it’s more personal, more probing than their politics, religion, sexual preference. It is something that goes to the very soul when you say, ‘You bought that?’ It is remarkable.”

Survivors include his wife of 48 years, the former Jane Fearer; a daughter, Sarah Bakal; one sister, one brother and three grandchildren.

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