Morley Safer was a witness to much of what happened in this world, and, because of his career in journalism, he was given opportunities to understand the nuances and complexities of it. And because he possessed such knowledge, he was gifted with the ability to see things and express what he saw in his usually inimitable way, using the tools of wry understatement and appreciable irony.
He died of pneumonia at the age of 84 on May 19—barely five days after his official retirement from the fabled CBS newsmagazine “60 Minutes”; he would surely have appreciated the irony that his retirement from journalism only lasted that long. Morley Safer was a unique individual because he never considered his work as such; his career was his avocation as well as vocation. He practically worked almost to the very day of his death; it is likely that he would have wanted it no other way.
When you think of it, it is remarkable that a person like Morley Safer endured as a journalist for so long. He had the book smarts (even though he was a college drop-out, he had an endless curiosity and wanted to learn everything—a desire attested to by his book-and-paper strewn office) and the street-smarts (he couldn’t have survived reporting from Vietnam if he didn’t—and he did survive from having the copter he was in shot down) that many of today’s journalists don’t always have (or appear to have). True, his fame came from being a “60 Minutes” correspondent along with Mike Wallace and all the others, but he started out, as the old phrases put it, as a “newsman” and a “shoe-leather reporter.” Growing up in Canada, he dreamed of a career covering the wider world and his beginnings at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation paved the way for the realization of that dream.
Mr. Safer belonged to the “glory days” of television journalism. When he was hired by CBS News in 1964, he was sent to work in the network’s London bureau; not long after, he began to take part in the network’s noted coverage of the Vietnam War. When he was hired, he literally found himself behind the desk that belonged to the founding father of CBS News, Edward R. Murrow—it was the desk he was given to work from. And like his famed predecessor, he smoked many a cigarette while smoking out the story.
Perhaps that is why someone like Morley Safer held such a fascination for people: He was an “everyman.” It was Mr. Safer’s good fortune to be able to have a profession doing so and enjoying it—and all the while managing to make a comfortable living because of it. Maybe that was his secret: He loved what he did. It is the rare person who gets up out of bed every day, looking forward to seeing what their avocation brings to them. Morley Safer was one of the lucky ones.
In the commemorative program that aired after the usual “60 Minutes” showing on that Sunday preceding his death, Morley Safer said that he really didn’t like being on television, or, as he put it: “It makes me uneasy. It is not natural to be talking to a piece of machinery.” After saying that, however, he gleefully pointed out that: “But the money is very good.” There it was, the serious mitigated by the humorous: the Morley Safer trademark. The fact that he didn’t like to talk to a “piece of machinery,” said much about what he felt about journalism was supposed to be about. To him, journalism was about people, that is, talking to people about life in general and their lives in particular. Journalism is a “people” enterprise—one person learning about what others think and do and telling everyone else about that.
Journalism as a “people enterprise”: Morley Safer was the embodiment of that view. When he was asked that of all his years of reporting, what was his favorite story or televised report, many expected an answer involving Vietnam or an interview with a politician or an “insider tell-all” with a celebrity (like the one he did with the “Great One,” Jackie Gleason, where they both engaged in a game of billiards, which greatly appealed to Morley Safer’s gambling and adventurous instincts). His answer was about the time in 1983 when he told the story of an African-American engineer who was wrongly convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to life imprisonment in Texas. The Safer report on “60 Minutes” wasn’t the first one about Mr. Lenell Geter’s predicament, but it did help lead to an official reconsideration of the case and the eventual release of an innocent man from a punishment he did not deserve. Morley Safer’s own explanation was as good as any of what a life in journalism meant to him; it is a work about people for people. No wonder it took death to officially “retire” him.
“…And I’m Morley Safer.” How many countless times dedicated “60 Minutes” viewers heard that craggy-faced, kindly man say that Sunday after Sunday, waiting to see what new and novel report he could come up with, to tickle their fancy or give cause for serious reflection. In his younger days, he sort of looked like NBC’s Chet Huntley (an equally wavy-haired and craggy-faced gentleman) and he also had for good measure David Brinkley’s sense of distance, and nuanced irony. When he first began to be noticed by CBS News viewers for his Vietnam reportage, his name wasn’t exactly a household one: even “Uncle Walter”—Walter Cronkite—the venerable CBS News anchor, known for being the “most trusted newsman in America,” tripped up at first trying to remember his name (a beginning of the ironies!), but that wasn’t for long. Whether he was in combat fatigues or finely attired in a suit accompanied by a natty handkerchief, Morley Safer was always ready to tease out the story, not only for his own edification but for everyone else's.
For those of us who were fortunate to be viewers of his work as he went about his work showing us to ourselves, we will miss his style, panache and humanity. He was truly an original and we should consider ourselves lucky if we ever come across his likes again.
He spent a remarkable 60 years as a reporter who eventually became famous for being on “60 Minutes.” As a boy, his reading of Ernest Hemingway made Morley Safer want to be a foreign correspondent. We can be sure that even though he has died, the reporter in him has not: we can easily imagine that—true to his character—he’s out “there” working on the eternal version of that famed newsmagazine, doing research for that next “big story.”
Sundays will never be the same.