Morley Safer In Memoriam
The Briscoe Center is deeply saddened by news of the death of Morley Safer at the age of 84. Safer, whose historically valuable papers are located at the Briscoe Center, was a legendary correspondent for CBS News, where he spent the majority of his 61 years in journalism.
“I was extremely fortunate to have been befriended by Morley Safer and his wonderful wife, Jane. Morley deserves every word—and more—of the praise he has received from all corners,” said Don Carleton, executive director of the Briscoe Center. “Morley generously gave his papers to the Briscoe Center, and he was kind enough to contribute the introduction to my book Conversations with Cronkite. His generation of worldly, wise, field-experienced, intellectually broad, dedicated and hard-nosed journalists (of which he was among the best) is leaving us and we are very much the worse for it.”
Morley Safer was born on November 8, 1931, in Toronto. He began his career as a reporter for various newspapers in Canada before becoming a correspondent for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1955. Safer joined CBS News in 1964 and quickly earned recognition for his coverage of the Vietnam War. He spent three tours as head of the CBS Saigon bureau, and during one reporting mission in 1965, the helicopter transporting him was shot down. He survived and went on to attract the attention of the nation (and the outrage of the White House) with a report on Cam Ne, a village near the port of Da Nang, which was burned to the ground by Marines trying to flush out Viet Cong fighters who had been sniping at them.
“This is what the war in Vietnam is all about,” Safer reported against a backdrop of smoke, fire, weeping women and scared children. “The Vietcong were long gone. The action wounded three women, killed one baby, wounded one Marine and netted four old men as prisoners. Today’s operation is the frustration of Vietnam in miniature.” The impact of the report was recently highlighted in the Briscoe Center’s exhibit, Evidence of War. Safer later wrote Flashbacks: On Returning to Vietnam about his reporting experiences.
“When I interviewed Walter Cronkite during my work with him on Conversations back in the mid-1990s, I asked him what he thought of Flashbacks. Walter responded, ‘That’s a fine book, by the way. Just beautifully written. It is an excellent book. I would give anything to write that well. My gosh, I would be satisfied just to think as well as he does. Morley’s one of the best,'” recalled Carleton.
Returning from Vietnam, Safer served as the CBS London Bureau Chief in 1967. Based in London, his work extended to a variety of foreign assignments, including conflict in the Middle East, the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Russian troops, and the first report by a western journalist from inside Communist China.
In 1970, Safer joined the staff of 60 Minutes, replacing Harry Reasoner (whose papers are also held at the center). For the next 46 years Safer produced a mix of serious reporting, quirky features and celebrity profiles that helped the once-fledgling program become one the most-watched and respected news shows in American history. In 1983, one of his investigations helped lead to the freedom of Lenell Geter, a black man wrongly convicted and sentenced to life in prison in Texas. The report led to Safer and 60 Minutes receiving the Peabody, George Polk and duPont-Columbia University awards in journalistic excellence.
Many of Safer’s reports for 60 Minutes were lighter in nature. His 1979 report from the tiny island of Furudu, his 1993 feature on a Finnish Tango dancing craze, and his 2013 profile of Marfa, Texas, showcased Safer’s literary and reporting abilities, as did his classic interviews with Jackie Gleason, Katharine Hepburn and Anna Wintour. In 2000, when asked about his work, Safer emphasized the importance of “the craft of writing for this medium. It’s not literary, I wouldn’t presume to suggest that … but it can be very classy journalism.”
“He was a master storyteller, a gentleman and a wonderful friend. We will miss him very much,” said Jeff Fager, the executive producer of 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,” said CBS Chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves.
The Morley Safer Papers include original news scripts, research files, correspondence, memoranda, photographs, manuscripts and videos from his time at CBS and 60 Minutes. Scripts of stories filed from Poland, Berlin and London chronicle his tenure with CBC.
In 2019, the Briscoe Center launched The Morley Safer Award for Outstanding Reporting in partnership with the Safer family.