Morley Safer, a CBS News correspondent whose coverage of U.S. military abuses in Vietnam helped shape opinion against the war and who later helped make “60 Minutes” television’s highest-rated news program during his 46 years filing investigative reports and whimsical cultural dispatches, died May 19 at his home in New York City. He was 84.
On Sunday, CBS announced Mr. Safer’s retirement in a special episode of “60 Minutes,” airing highlights from his half-century with the network. The network confirmed the death but did not disclose the cause.
The Canadian-born, ascot-wearing Mr. Safer had an urbane and unflappable manner, whether reporting from war zones, from museums or from French vineyards, where he was among the first to describe the supposed benefits of red wine in staving off heart disease.
After joining “60 Minutes” in 1970, Mr. Safer became co-host with Mike Wallace of the weekly Sunday night newsmagazine. Under the guiding hand of producer Don Hewitt, who created the program in 1968, “60 Minutes” became both a ratings juggernaut and one of the most influential — and feared — enterprises in journalism.
Other correspondents, including Ed Bradley, Lesley Stahl, Bob Simon and Steve Kroft, later became mainstays at “60 Minutes,” but for years Wallace and Mr. Safer embodied the program’s style and appeal. Wallace, who died in 2012, was often considered the bulldog of the two, grilling government officials, criminals and international leaders with questions that struck with the force of a blunt object.
Mr. Safer, who filed 919 stories for “60 Minutes,” was known more for his deft touch and graceful writing style.
“Mike is the bad guy,” he told Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper in 1979. “I don’t like to walk into those closets and shake the skeletons. I enjoy the observed kind of story, not catching them in the act, as Mike does.”
Yet he could be just as forceful as Wallace in confronting corporate greed, medical fraud and social injustice.
One of Mr. Safer’s proudest moments came in 1983, when he reported on Lenell Geter, who was sentenced to life in prison in Texas for robbing a Kentucky Fried Chicken of $615. Other news outlets also covered the story, but Mr. Safer’s “60 Minutes” piece illuminated problems with the case.
Mr. Safer found new witnesses who cast doubt on the methods of investigators and prosecutors. In part because of the persuasive “60 Minutes” segment, Geter was exonerated and released from prison, and Mr. Safer won an Emmy Award, a Peabody Award and an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for the broadcast.
Mr. Safer first gained widespread renown in 1965, when he was the CBS bureau chief in Saigon, covering the Vietnam War. He joined a group of Marines on a mission to the village of Cam Ne, reported to be a stronghold of the Vietcong, the force fighting against U.S. and South Vietnamese troops.
In the broadcast, which aired on Aug. 5, 1965, Mr. Safer said the Marines had set dozens of thatched dwellings on fire with flamethrowers. One Marine casually flipped open his cigarette lighter, sending a structure up in flames.
“This is what the war in Vietnam is all about,” Mr. Safer said. “The Vietcong were long gone. The action wounded three women, killed one baby, wounded one Marine and netted four old men as prisoners. . . . To a Vietnamese peasant whose home means a lifetime of backbreaking labor, it will take more than presidential promises to convince him that we are on his side.”
The report jolted many Americans from their complacency about the war but brought immediate retribution from the military and the White House. President Lyndon B. Johnson complained to CBS President Frank M. Stanton and launched an investigation of Mr. Safer, accusing him of disloyalty.
One high-ranking military officer in Vietnam warned Mr. Safer to leave the battle zone, “or you may end up dead.” In his 1990 book, “Flashback: On Returning to Vietnam,” Mr. Safer wrote that he stayed awake all night, with a loaded gun at his side. The next day, he was back in the field, covering the war.
The Cam Ne report “prepared the way for a different perception of the war among Americans at large,” David Halberstam wrote in his 1979 book about the media, “The Powers That Be.” “Overnight one correspondent with one cameraman could become as important as ten or fifteen or twenty senators.”
In 1967, Mr. Safer used his Canadian passport to venture into China as a tourist. He and a British cameraman obtained some of the first inside views of the communist country, then closed to Western journalists. Mr. Safer was briefly detained for “spreading poisonous weeds of bourgeois democracy” before being released.
After three years in the CBS London bureau, Mr. Safer succeeded Harry Reasoner as a “60 Minutes” host at a time when the show was struggling to attain ratings. With his dapper clothes and a soothing voice that seemed to be suppressing a chuckle, Mr. Safer helped define the tone of the two-year-old program.
“Whenever Morley’s out on a story, you definitely have a sense that he is there,” Kroft, who became a “60 Minutes” correspondent in 1989, once told the Newark Star-Ledger. “He turned up in Beirut in a blue blazer and white slacks. He always writes as if he’s telling the story at a cocktail party. He always finds a way to leave out the boring stuff.”
Mr. Safer received one of his 12 Emmy Awards for a 1971 investigation that questioned the official account of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, which led to the U.S. military buildup in Vietnam. He traveled up to 200,000 miles a year for “60 Minutes,” including a 1975 visit to the Caucasus Mountains for a story about the region’s many centenarians.
In a somewhat scandalous 1975 interview with Betty Ford, the first lady admitted to Mr. Safer that she wouldn’t be surprised if her 18-year-old daughter was having sex. In 1991, the wine-loving Mr. Safer could barely contain his glee when he suggested that red wine and butter-rich foods — “The French Paradox” — might promote longevity.
Mr. Safer incurred the wrath of the art establishment with his cheeky 1993 segment “Yes . . . But Is It Art?” He quoted the baffling commentary of art “experts” and showed auctions at which prices soared into the millions. He openly questioned whether the creations of such celebrated artists as Jeff Koons, Julian Schabel, Cy Twombly and Jean-Michel Basquiat were anything more than “worthless junk.”
The art world was incensed and bore a grudge for years. When Mr. Safer later tried to enter New York’s Museum of Modern Art for a “60 Minutes” segment, he was barred at the door.
Morley Safer was born Nov. 8, 1931, in Toronto, where his father had an upholstery shop. After attending what was then the University of Western Ontario, he worked at Canadian newspapers and for the Reuters news agency in London before landing a job in 1955 with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. He was a foreign correspondent before being hired to work in the CBS London bureau in 1964.
Over the years, Mr. Safer covered conflicts from Israel to Northern Ireland to Nigeria, where a photographer standing next to him was killed by a sniper. When he reached a hotel after the incident, Mr. Safer placed a call to his girlfriend in London and proposed. He and anthropologist Jane Fearer were married in 1968.
She survives, along with a daughter; a brother; a sister; and three grandchildren.
About 10 years ago, Mr. Safer began to appear less frequently on “60 Minutes,” but he was a fixture on the 48-year-old news franchise longer than any other correspondent.
“There’s no secret to the success of the broadcast,” he told the Hollywood Reporter in 2013. “It is staying out of the gutter and handling just about any kind of story imaginable. And at some point, maybe around the 25th year, we became a habit.”
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