PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Morley Safer, the iconic storyteller, captivating news anchor and the face of “60 Minutes” for nearly half a decade died on Thursday at 84.
Safer joined “60 Minutes” in 1970, becoming the longest-serving correspondent on the show long before his retirement last week. During the course of his 46 years working there he played pool with Jackie Gleason, was the first U.S. network newsman to film a report inside Communist China and showed GIs burning the huts of Vietnamese villagers while covering the Vietnam war—a report that some believe helped free journalists from censoring themselves.
He would later write a book about his experiences in Vietnam titled “Flashbacks: On Returning to Vietnam.”
In addition to earning him a George Polk award, the controversial story angered then President Lyndon B. Johnson and Safer had said the pentagon had treated him with contempt ever since. Many marines thanked Safer for exposing a cruel tactic.
Safer’s war reporting helped put “60 Minutes” on the map. The program won an Emmy in 1971 for the investigation into the Gulf of Tonkin incident. A few years later thousands of viewers tuned into Safer’s interview with Betty Ford—shocking Americans with a candid conversation about sex, abortion and pot.
“60 Minutes” was rated the #1 program in Nielsen’s Top 10 for the 1979-80 season and remained there for 23 straight seasons.
“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.”
According to CBS News, Safer was in declining health when he announced his retirement on May 11 and 60 Minutes honored the veteran journalist with a special one-hour report which aired on Sunday. It described Safer as “always being up for a story about a new gadget or a backstage look at how familiar things are produced”—recalling a trip Safer had taken to the Philadelphia mint to see how money was made.
Safer was born on Nov. 8, 1931 in Toronto and later became an American citizen, with a dual citizenship. He began his journalism career early on, dropping out of college to start writing for newspapers. Years later he was hired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and landed his first on-camera gig covering the Suez Crisis in November 1956. CBS later hired him for their London bureau in 1964 after seeing Safer in someone else’s demo tape.
“Morley Safer helped create the CBS News we know today. No correspondent had more extraordinary range, from war reporting to coverage of every aspect of modern culture,” noted CBS News President David Rhodes. “His writing alone defined original reporting. Everyone at CBS News will sorely miss Morley.”
According to CBS News, Safer watched his retirement special in his home. It included the iconic story of Lenell Geter, a young black man serving life for armed robbery whose conviction was overturned 10 days after Safer covered his story in December 1983. According to CBS News, “60 Minutes” founder, Don Hewitt often referred to the piece as “the program’s finest work.”
In November 2000 Safer was asked to characterize his legacy as a journalist in an interview with the American Archive of Television.
“I have a pretty solid body of work that emphasized the words, emphasized ideas and the craft of writing for this medium. It’s not literary, I wouldn’t presume to suggest that. But I think you can elevate it a little bit sometimes with the most important part of the medium, which is what people are saying — whether they’re the people being interviewed or the guy who’s telling the story. It’s not literature, but it can be very classy journalism.”
According to CBS News, Safer is survived by his wife, Jane, of 48 years, his daughter, Sarah Bakal and her husband Alexander and three grandchildren, in addition to a brother and sister, both in Toronto.
Funeral arrangements have been made private but a memorial service is expected to be announced at a later date.