Morley Safer, the renowned Canadian-American journalist that was a fixture at CBS for almost fifty years, died only days after his retirement. His health on the rapid decline, he worked until it was physically impossible. Lionized as “a gentleman, a scholar, [and] a great raconteur” by CBS chairman Leslie Moonvies, not someone especially known for the liberal application of superlatives, his statement was nonetheless representative of the universal admiration among his colleagues for his tremendous body of work.
Mere chance saved him from likely obscurity at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation when he was discovered by CBS News in the background of a demo tape sent in by one of Safer’s colleagues. Willing to take on overseas assignments that often were risky, Safer labored for years in Saigon and London, with high-risk high-reward foreign assignments in Communist China, Nigeria, Czechoslovakia, and Israel. His travels often brought him into combat zones and areas under control of totalitarian regimes, which he weathered with aplomb and more than a little luck.
His efforts paid off in 1970 when we has elevated to a post at 60 Minutes, a TV news magazine still in its infancy. He rewarded CBS in turn by executing, in partnership with Mike Wallace, bait-and-switch sensationalist tele-journalism to perfection in an era where news was often delivered with stale and unimaginative grandfatherly paternalism. 60 minutes rose from the ratings basement, and begun an unprecedented quarter-century run as a top ten show, often holding the number one spot. The show’s relevance declined starting in the 1990s as the number of news options exploded with the popularity of cable television, and then the advent of the Internet, both mediums which liberally copied the style of 60 Minutes, if not the substance.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Safer’s life was iconic. This was no accident–he was a smart and savvy journalist with an impeccable sense of timing and understanding of the attitudes of the public. But his ability to perceive cognitive dissonance by politicians and government institutions and to subsequently exploit it with painfully embarrassing exposes is what cemented his career and place among the media intelligentsia.
Often gaining the trust of a variety of officials, foreign and domestic, through empty promises and outright deception, he gleefully betrayed such trust over and over again on national TV. Starting in 1965 with an embedded assignment with the U.S. Marines in 1965 at Cam Ne that viscerally exposed civilian collateral damage in US combat operations and became a propaganda coup for the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese, Safer wrapped himself with a stateless flag and declared himself above the issues of national politics. In fact he doubled down on that narrative, gaining dual citizenship of both Canada and the United States in order to grease his movements around the globe, but still continuing to take delight in poking fun at both governments.
In truth, Safer was the king of yellow journalism, a sobriquet that disturbed him not in the least. This was well and good when dealing with crooked politicians and greedy corporate executives. But Safer wasn’t satisfied in knocking down institutions and individuals a peg when they needed it. He preferred to dynamite the foundations of the countries that called him citizen, and while the rest of us hung onto for dear life hoping that their country would survive the scandals and betrayals, Safer cashed in on his antics with big compensation packages from grateful CBS executives that bathed in the glow from Safer’s Nielson ratings. It was the cash he needed to support his jaunts to Rome to nurture his painting hobby, cash he needed to buy expensive sports cars, cash he needed to the sustain the bourgeois lifestyle he publicly despised in others.
Safer resisted caricature. He often reported on subjects not in the regular mainstream, such as art and cuisine, with the same wit and insightfulness of the outsider observing the idiosyncrasies of the insider as he did in taking down the rich and powerful. His talents were recognized over and over again with coveted journalism awards, and he often earned grudging respect from his enemies. And enemies he had aplenty, in low places and high. Not all were his admirers–the U.S. military treated him with the utter contempt it reserved for traitors and the aiders-and-abettors of the enemy for the rest of his life after the Cam Ne report.
Safer died as he lived–controlling the narrative. There were no exposes of a grandfatherly journalist once powerful but now in meek decline, no undignified deathbed interviews absent his usually smirking visage, and no power struggle forcing him out of CBS News as younger talent battled to take on his responsibilities. Instead he quietly passed away at age 84, with the thunderous applause of his peers still echoing outside. He was a man without a country, but unlike Edward Everett Hale’s Lt. Phillip Nolan, closed his eyes without consequence or regrets.