Morley Safer, the CBS newsman who changed war reporting forever when he showed U.S. Marines burning the huts of Vietnamese villagers and went on to become the iconic 60 Minutes correspondent whose stylish stories on America's most-watched news program made him one of television's most enduring stars, died today in Manhattan. He was 84. He had homes in Manhattan and Chester, Conn.
Safer was in declining health when he announced his retirement last week; CBS News broadcast a long-planned special hour to honor the occasion on Sunday May 15 that he watched in his home.
A huge presence on 60 Minutes for 46 years -- Safer enjoyed the longest run anyone ever had on primetime network television. Though he cut back a decade ago, he still appeared regularly until recently, captivating audiences with his signature stories on art, science and culture. A dashing figure in his checked shirt, polka dot tie and pocket square, Morley Safer -- even his name had panache -- was in his true element playing pool with Jackie Gleason, delivering one of his elegant essays aboard the Orient Express or riffing on Anna Wintour, but he also asked the tough questions and did the big stories. In 2011, over 18.5 million people watched him ask Ruth Madoff how she could not have known her husband Bernard was running a billion-dollar Ponzi scheme.
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"Morley was one of the most important journalists in any medium, ever," said CBS Chairman and CEO, Leslie Moonves. "He broke ground in war reporting and made a name that will forever be synonymous with 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, to whom all of us at CBS offer our sincerest condolences over the loss of one of CBS' and journalism's greatest treasures."
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Safer was a familiar reporter to millions when he replaced Harry Reasoner on 60 Minutes in 1970. A much-honored foreign correspondent, Safer was the first U.S. network newsman to film a report inside Communist China. He appeared regularly on the CBS Evening News from all over the world, especially Vietnam, where his controversial reporting earned him peer praise and government condemnation.
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Safer's piece from the Vietnamese hamlet of Cam Ne in August of 1965 showing U.S. Marines burning the villagers' thatched huts was cited by New York University as one of the 20th century's best pieces of American journalism. Some believe this report freed other journalists to stop censoring themselves and tell the raw truth about war. The controversial report on the "CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite" earned Safer a George Polk award and angered President Lyndon Johnson so much, he reportedly called CBS President Frank Stanton and said, "Your boys shat on the American flag yesterday." Some Marines are said to have threatened Safer, but others thanked him for exposing a cruel tactic. Safer said that the pentagon treated him with contempt for the rest of his life.
He spent three tours (1964-'66) as head of the CBS Saigon bureau. His helicopter was shot down in a 1965 battle, after which Safer continued to report under fire. In 1990, he penned a memoir of his Vietnam experience, "Flashbacks: On Returning to Vietnam" (Random House), in which he goes back to reminisce and to interview the enemy's veterans.
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Then in August 1975, with a new Sunday evening timeslot, Safer put 60 Minutes on the national stage. Interviewing Betty Ford, the first lady shocked many Americans by saying she would think it normal if her 18-year-old daughter were having sex. The historic sit-down also included frank talk about pot and abortion.
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It was another Safer story that would become one of the program's most honored and important. "Lenell Geter's in Jail," about a young black man serving life for armed robbery in Texas, overturned Geter's conviction 10 days after the December 1983 segment exposed a sloppy rush to injustice.
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His conversational wit with his subjects was just as sharp as his written word. In a profile of the prim Martha Stewart, a smirking Safer passed her livestock pen and said to the domestic diva, "Your barnyard? It's remarkably odor-free."
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CBS News hired the Canadian-born Safer in 1964 in London, where he was a correspondent for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He got the job in an odd turn of events. One of Safer's CBC colleagues seeking a job with CBS sent a demo tape of a roundtable he anchored that included Safer. CBS news executives liked Safer better and gave him a job in the London Bureau. The young correspondent took over his new job behind the desk once occupied by another CBS legend, the late Edward R. Murrow.
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Safer was born Nov. 8, 1931 in Toronto and eventually became an American citizen, holding a dual citizenship. Telling MacLeans he felt "stateless," he believed this status was an advantage. "I bring a different perspective and I have no vested interests," he told the magazine in 1998.
Growing up, he was influenced by the writing of Ernest Hemingway and decided he would be a foreign correspondent. He attended the University of Western Ontario for only a few weeks when he dropped out to begin writing for newspapers.
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Safer was asked to characterize his legacy as a journalist in a November 2000 interview with the American Archive of Television. "I have a pretty solid body of work that emphasized the words, emphasized ideas and the craft of writing for this medium. It's not literary, I wouldn't presume to suggest that. But I think you can elevate it a little bit sometimes with the most important part of the medium, which is what people are saying -- whether they're the people being interviewed or the guy who's telling the story. It's not literature, but it can be very classy journalism."
He is survived by his wife of 48 years, Jane, one daughter, Sarah Bakal, her husband, Alexander Bakal, three grandchildren, a sister, and brother, both of Toronto.
60 Minutes' Morley Safer dies at 84
Longtime CBS newsman Morley Safer of "60 Minutes" and Vietnam War reporting fame dies at 84
2016 May 19