Morley Safer: A reporter's life

Only last week, "60 Minutes" Executive Producer Jeff Fager announced Morley Safer's retirement, saying, "I knew this day was coming, and I just never wanted it to arrive." Now, the journalist who covered 919 stories for "60 Minutes," a veteran reporter whose career spanned 52 years for CBS, has died.

He was part of a Mount Rushmore of journalism that included Dan Rather, Harry Reasoner, Mike Wallace, Ed Bradley and producer Don Hewitt.

Safer's distinctive voice and his folksy writing style allowed him to connect to the everyday viewer with unpretentious observations. Nowhere was the style more on display than when he occasionally poked a stick in the eye of the art world, questioning whether the stuff that museums were celebrating was, in fact, art.

CBS said Safer had been in declining health. Les Moonves, the chairman and CEO of CBS, called him "one of the most important journalists in any medium, ever."

His work has been praised widely. In 1999, New York University listed Safer's reporting of American Marines burning Vietnamese villager's huts in the Cam Ne in August of 1965 as "one of the 20th century's best pieces of American journalism."

In 2003, Safer recounted for PBS what he witnessed in Vietnam.

They 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. No Vietnamese speakers, by the way, were among the group with the flame thrower. The trooper with the flame thrower was ordered to zap a particular house, and our cameraman, who's Vietnamese — Ha Thuc Can, this wonderful man — put his camera down and said, "Don't do it! Don't do it!" And he walked to the house and then I went with him, and a sergeant came on up. We heard people crying.

The story sparked U.S. government denials and public outrage. President Johnson reportedly called for an investigation into Safer's background. Subsequent investigations claimed the Marines faced significant resistance in that village and that the situation was far more dangerous than CBS reported.

In his interview with PBS, Safer remarked that the incident may have been a turning point in the way journalists cover war. It was a shock to TV viewers who grew up on heroic images of American soldiers during World War II:

Of course, this wouldn't have happened in World War II, or if it had happened, it wouldn't have been photographed. Or had it been photographed, the photographs would have been censored. I think what makes the story most significant was that it was happening on television, uncensored, either in picture or commentary. There was a realization — perhaps least of all by the press, but certainly by the military and maybe by the public — that the rules have all changed.

The celebratory tone of last week's retirement announcement gave way to tearful news bulletins Thursday. NBC's Andrea Mitchell told MSNBC viewers, choking back tears, "We have something..something uh very sad to report."

In announcing Safer's death Thursday, CBS News President David Rhodes said that 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," Rhodes said. "His writing alone defined original reporting. Everyone at CBS News will sorely miss Morley."

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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