Morley Safer: On Listening Well
As time goes by, Morley Safer, of New York City and lately of Chester, Connecticut, is becoming more of a broadcast anomaly. He possesses none of Dan Rather's aggressiveness or the squinty-eyed intensity of Mike Wallace. He doesn't shout questions a la Sam Donaldson nor conduct ambush interviews. Unlike Andy Rooney, he works hard for his money. And while Diane Sawyer may pose fetchingly for Vanity Fair, you probably won't see Morley strutting his stuff there anytime soon.
When "60 Minutes" comes to mind one doesn't think of the Canadian-born Safer first. Yet he's been on the program for 18 years, reporting in his unobtrusive, wry, often philosophical way. Only Wallace, who appeared on the inaugural show 20 seasons ago, has been there longer.
Safer's relatively dim aspect, however, has nothing to do with reportorial skills. Only Wallace can match awards with Safer, who captured three Emmys in 1985 alone. No, what is keeping Morley Safer's luminescence low is Morley Safer. His style is, well, old-fashioned, gentlemanly. "I can't do the kind of thing that Mike [Wallace] does," he says. I find if you let people talk, and if you listen well, they will tell you everything you need to know."
Two years ago, the journalist migrated to Chester in an attempt to become a country gentleman, at least on weekends. "Something happened to me, maybe advancing old age or something," explain Safer, who is 56. "The reason I didn't have a weekend place before is that I travel so much for the show that the idea of more traveling was more than I could bear. I guess I finally felt that I really needed the down time." He and his wife, Jane, who is an anthropologist who does consulting work for museums, found a seven-room stone and stucco home on seven acres and immediately undertook an ambitious renovation/addition project.
They met in London while he was with the CBS bureau there, and she, an American, was completing her doctorate. Being married once and for 20 years is something of an accomplishment in high level journalism: Wallace is on his fourth wife; Ed Bradley has been divorced twice; Harry Reasoner is divorced; and Diane Sawyer has never married. The Safer's daughter, Sarah, is a senior at a Massachusetts boarding school. "She's got the right instincts for journalism," according to her father.
Long after the house project was scheduled to be completed, Safer is stepping around and over the sprawling obstacle course that is his living room. He is on the way to the kitchen for instant coffee, bread and cheese. "There have been so many delays on this thing. I mean the floor guy was supposed to come yesterday — I won't bore you with my horror stories — and he didn't show which means I can't put any furniture back until he's finished."
Safer is an attentive, unceremonious host. There is more character to his face than is evident when he is on the air: it is defined by deep lines down his cheeks and across his forehead and by bushy expressive eyebrows. The courtly and distinctive grainy voice is "as pure southern Ontario as you'll find," says Safer, who was raised in Toronto and is still a Canadian citizen. When he smiles, he keeps his lips together, something he would clearly have to work on in order to rise to the level of megastar.
He is sporting gray thin-wale corduroys, an old stretched-out brown sweater and tan Oxfords. After setting out the mid-morning victuals, he starts hunting for matches to light his cigarette. He gives the fire a few rearranging taps with his shoe and settles down, absent-mindedly clicking a fingernail.
"Chester isn't sure what it is, in a certain way," he says of his new hometown. "Is it semi-rural? Semi-chic? It's not clear what it wants to be — which is good by the way. When they start having too many candle shops, it's time to leave." Just up the road from his house is a bedraggled auto body shop, the sort of place newcomers tend to frown at, viewing it as a threat to ever-escalating property values. It doesn't bother this newcomer, however.
What Safer likes most about country life is not being noticed. Gentrified as Chester may be for eastern Connecticut, it is still the frontier compared with trendy locales in the western part of the state. "I was absolutely against going up to that whole Litchfield, Kent, Washington area, he says. "It's become an extension of New York City. I have good friends there and I love to see then on the odd weekend, but I just didn't want to get into those high social stakes."
He concedes that his wife is afraid that after the house project is complete he will grow edgy with only scenery and serenity to engage him. "I wonder if I have the patience for gardening," he muses.
He is looking forward to doing some landscape painting when the house is in order. He spends so much time in motel rooms while on assignment that he began painting interiors of them. A show of these unlikely subjects at a Soho gallery sold out a few years back.
Safer says his motel-art phase was just something to do at night, to let his mind go bland. Maybe, too, it has something to do with his compulsion to see things that others may not look very closely at, if at all. In his "60 Minutes" pieces he draws attention to such unseen things with words, his intonation and subtle facial expression.
As with most artists it is the work that matters to Safer: "We all have an ego is this business and I guess I have as much as anybody. But any real ego is in wanting to do terrific stories —
that's how I get my kicks."
Safer's official CBS biography says he attended the University of Western Ontario, and so he did — for about two weeks. "I really hated college, I didn't see it leading anywhere," he explains. "Being a reporter was my idea of the right thing to do. I think I had romantic notions of the perfect job, totally irresponsible, meeting the lowlifes and the high-lifes, telling cops to get out of my way." He had no journalistic forebears to guide him (his father ran an upholstery business), but he did have a bit of wanderlust in his soul, a handy attribute for any reporter.
He began his journalistic career writing for small dailies in Canada and then went off to England, where he worked in Oxford before landing a job on the rewrite desk at Reuters in London in 1955. He returned home soon after to become a writer/producer for the Canadian Broadcast Corp.
TV news was in its infancy when Safer joined the CBC, and he was soon reporting on camera in addition to his original duties. "We didn't have a lot of reporters in those days, so everyone got to do a little bit of everything," he says. Despite his fondness for the written word, he was smitten with the visual medium: "I found it wonderfully exciting because it was all so new. You were able to do things in novel ways. I became consumer by it, actually the possibilities of what you could do seemed unlimited. We were sort of making the rules up as we went along."
In 1964 CBS hired Safer away from CBC. Soon he was living the low life in Vietnam, where he opened the networks first bureau in 1965. In Saigon and environs the romance of journalism was hard to come by, and Safer's critical reporting of US military tactics, including coverage of a disturbing "search and destroy mission," caught the attention of President Lyndon Johnson, who was not happy.
"I guess what you realize, generally speaking, is how extraordinarily imperfect the people are whom we elect to government," he says of his two stints in Vietnam, during which he took some shrapnel and earned a number of press awards for covering combat. He added, "That's a very kind way of saying that they had no imagination, no sense of the implications of what they are doing. If you were going to have an inquiry, if this had been the 19th century, the people who ran this war — I'm not talking about the morality of the war now but the execution of it — should have had a pistol put before them and been reminded of their duty as officers, which was to blow themselves away for having all those young men killed to no end."
From the quagmire of Vietnam, Safer was named CBS bureau chief in London in 1967. He would cover from the troubles in Northern Ireland, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the Nigerian civil war. In Nigeria he narrowly escaped death during a skirmish — the journalist lying next to him in the ditch was not so lucky. Later Safer was exlpelled from the country for reporting on government pilferage of relief supplies destined for Biafra refugees.
In December 1970, Safer left the wars behind to replace Harry Reasoner on "60 Minutes." Reasoner jumped to ABC but would return to the program in 1978. The show was just Safer and Wallace until Dan Rather appeared in 1975. In those early years, the magazine news format had yet to become established. It wasn't until 1976 that the show moved to Sunday evenings and found its niche. By 1978 "60 Minutes" broke into the Nielsen top ten, where it has remained ever since.
Eighteen years later, Safer can't think of a job he would rather have. Small wonder: he gets to pick his own stories, never is forced to do pieces he doesn't like, and has the power to ax a segment, even in the middle of reporting it, if he feels it isn't up to snuff. Now that's unbridled journalism.
Of course, he sometimes works 70 hours a week, including weekends, when he would prefer to be splashing paint on the walls in Chester. He is accountable for about 25 stories a year and is usually juggling several at one time.
Not that he's complaining. He has interviewed the likes of Peter Ustinov, Jackie Gleason, Eubie Blake, Arthur Fiedler, and Katharine Hepburn. In his 1979 tête-à-tête with Hepburn at her Old Saybrook home, Safer ever so delicately displayed his skill of knowing when to let his subject talk and when to interrupt. When she complained about prices in restaurants, he interjected, "Are you a bit of a ... how shall I put this?"
"Tight?" she replied, "Yes.!"
Later she returned the favor, asking her inquisitor, "I feel like a bore most of the time, don't you?" Safer tactfully agreed. Nonetheless, the two bores managed to generate 15 minutes of wonderful conversation out of an hour-and-a-half interview session.
Safer is probably best known for these lighter stories. He has done many segments over the years on those wacky Brits. "Over here we lock up our crazies, but in England they call them eccentrics and nurture them," he says.
Don Hewitt, Safer's boss, describes him this way: Morley is a stylist. He adds flavor to the show, the sale and pepper." This might inspire one to ask, "Where's the beef?"
No worries, Safer does meat, too. His December 1983 report on Lenell Geter, a black man wrongly convicted in Texas of armed robbery, won a host of journalism awards — and more importantly, the man's freedom.
In late 1985, Safer went to Tunica County, Mississippi to get a taste of apartheid American style. "What struck me about the place was the South African look to it," he recalls.
In Tunica, the poorest country in the poorest state, blacks and whites went to school, lived, and worshipped separately. In fact, the whites' church backed right up on "Sugar Ditch," a colossal euphemism for the open sewer that flowed through the black neighborhood. Federal and state monies never seemed to trickle down as far as Sugar Ditch.
"The whites couldn't see it, couldn't see the blacks at all and how they lived. It was as if they were all invisible," Safer remembers. Indeed, Tunica's white officialdom was so blind to reality that they happily appeared on camera and tried to defend it. "If they could actually see the place, they would have been crazy to go on camera," he says. But they did talk and Safer listened well.
Despite all of what Safer has seen and reported on in almost four decades, the world continues to surprise him: "What amazes me, for example, is the sight of members of Congress going to Managua to meet Nicaraguan leaders to decide whether we should go to war with them. American congressmen have a feeling that they have a right to look the place over to see if they should have the leaders killed. Don't you find that like something out of a French farce?" Or a future piece by Morley Safer, perhaps.
In terms of television history, the longevity of "60 Minutes" places it third behind "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "Walt Disney" and its decade-long ranking among the top ten TV shows is bested by only "I Love Lucy" and "Gunsmoke." Yet as the program and its correspondents grow older before America's eyes (there average age is north of 57), doubts about its future inevitably rise. In fact, its ratings for the last three years have slipped slightly.
Safer isn't concerned, however: "I feel the quality of the work hold up still. Certain shows that are habits last longer than they should, but I honestly believe that our success stems from the quality, and the effort we put into the program."
And who will replace Wallace, Safer et al? "I know there are a lot of very good young people out there, in the woods," he says. "The crop of journalists coming along is extremely good. The day of blow-dry journalism is, if not over, being challenged."
In the meantime, Safer isn't abdicating just yet. He plans to continue focusing his eye on what he believes is the truth: "Ultimately, what goes on the air is the word of the correspondent and that's more than merely a perception. How could I be mouthing words or ideas I didn't believe in? I suppose it may happen elsewhere, but it doesn't happen on our show."
Update: Morley Safer, 84, died in 2016, the same year he retired from "60 Minutes."