Born in Toronto, Canada in 1931, Morley Safer started his TV career with the Canadian Broadcasting Company. He joined CBS in 1964 as its London correspondent and later reported from Vietnam, stirring controversy with his unflinching view of the war. In 1970, he joined the cast of the TV newsmagazine 60 Minutes and went on to become one of the most respected journalists in television history. On May 19, 2016, a week after retiring from 60 Minutes, Safer died at the age of 84.
Early Life and Career
Born in Toronto, Canada, in 1931, Morley Safer briefly attended the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, before landing his first newspaper job in 1951 at the Sentinel-Review, in small Woodstock, Ontario. Safer soon moved on to the Canadian Broadcasting Company, where he began producing the weekly CBC News Magazine. He made his on-screen debut while covering the Suez Crisis from Egypt in November 1956, and later was the only Western correspondent in East Berlin when construction of the Berlin Wall began in August 1961.
Move to CBS
Morley Safer joined CBS in 1964 and soon was dispatched to open the network’s bureau in Saigon, South Vietnam. In 1965, he filed a report featuring footage of U.S. Marines setting huts aflame in the village of Cam Ne. This not only gave Americans a look into the previously opaque war, but it incensed both the military and President Lyndon Johnson (who attempted to have Safer censored).
Another highlight from this era was his 1967 special report "Morley Safer's Red China Diary," the first broadcast by an American network from inside the Communist country. Posing as a tourist interested in archaeology, the journalist nearly had his cover blown when authorities questioned the veracity of his claims, but Safer knew enough about Chinese archaeology to ease their suspicions. These and other stories helped Safer make a name for himself, and in 1967 he was appointed CBS’ London bureau chief.
In 1970, Morley Safer joined the staff of the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes as a replacement for Harry Reasoner. Then in its third season, 60 Minutes was hardly on stable ground, but Safer helped boost interest in the program through such features as the investigation of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, which drew the U.S. into conflict in Vietnam. In 1975, he enjoyed a famous sit-down with First Lady Betty Ford, their candid conversation ranging from drug use to teenage sex.
In a career full of notable reports and on-air moments, Safer’s 1983 piece on Lenell Geter stands out as one of his finest. Geter, an African-American engineer, was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to life in prison, but Safer exposed a case of sloppy police work and uncovered new witnesses, helping to secure Geller’s release. For his work, Safer was honored with three prestigious broadcast journalism awards. Another acclaimed report from 2001, "School for the Homeless," in which Safer documented a controversial school attempting to provide education to many of the 1 million homeless children in America, earned him the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award First Prize for Domestic Television.
Not simply known for his hard-hitting journalism, Safer enjoyed reporting on a wide spectrum of culture; in one famous segment from 1993, he questioned the aesthetic value of modern art. He also had a knack for drawing out intriguing interview subjects, from Katharine Hepburn to Martha Stewart to Anna Wintour. In October 2011, more than 18 million 60 Minutes viewers watched Safer sit down with Ruth Madoff, wife of fallen financier Bernie Madoff, as he questioned her about what she knew about her husband’s massive Ponzi scheme.
Awards, Personal Life and Death
Morley Safer’s list of professional accolades includes 12 Emmy Awards, three Overseas Press Club Awards, three Peabody Awards and two Alfred I. DuPont–Columbia University Awards. Married to wife Jane since 1968, he had one daughter and three grandchildren.
Along with his journalism work, Safer wrote the best-seller Flashbacks: On Returning to Vietnam (1990), which describes his 1989 return to the erstwhile war-torn country. He also enjoyed painting as a hobby, earning a Manhattan gallery showing in 1980.
Safer formally announced his retirement in May 2016. At the time, with 46 years of service under his belt, he was the longest serving 60 Minutes correspondent. Following the announcement of his retirement, CBS aired the special Morley Safer: A Reporter’s Life to honor his legendary career. On May 19, just days after the special aired, Safer died at the age of 84 at his home in New York City.
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