We knew something was wrong.
When CBS takes an hour of Sunday prime time during Sweeps Weeks to announce your retirement and celebrate your 46 years on “60 Minutes,” it is reasonable to assume that you’ll show up for the occasion.
Or that there will be very recent film clips of you reflecting on all those years. Or, some word on your current life.
But Morley Safer wasn’t there last Sunday when his fellow “60 Minutes” correspondents paid well-deserved tribute. Nor was there word one about his current state or why he was absent.
It was impossible not to conclude anything other than “he’s not at all well.”
It only took a few more days to find out exactly how true that was. Safer’s death at the age of 84 was announced on Thursday.
Among other impossibilities Safer’s death presents is the incapacity of those under the age of 50 to understand the importance of what Safer once did. It was Safer, in the mid-’60s, who did on television what journalists like David Halberstam were doing in the New York Times: bringing the horrors of the Vietnam War home to a country that couldn’t quite believe it.
It was Safer’s reporting for CBS that had the most impact – in particular the August 1965 destruction of the village of Cam Ne, where we saw “American boys” burning the thatched straw roofs of huts with napalm. When that wasn’t available, we saw American soldiers use their Zippo lighters.
Then we saw weeping villagers, almost all children, women and the elderly.
“This is what the war in Vietnam is all about,” Safer reported to a stunned American audience. “The Viet Cong 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. To a Vietnamese peasant whose home means a lifetime of backbreaking labor, it will take more than presidential promises to convince him that we are on his side.”
“Burning the village in order to save it” is how it derisively came to be known.
That is a long way, indeed, from simply reporting what somebody said had happened at a daily briefing about the war in Saigon, the events journalists had taken to calling “the five o’clock follies.”
That dichotomy persists in journalism, i.e. endless reportage of what established spokespeople say happened vs. what actually did happen.
What Safer showed America in August 1965 wasn’t what television had ever shown American viewers before. You have to understand the world in which he did it – only three major networks, no internet, no cable news and Safer doing it on the network that had the strongest reputation, CBS, where its anchor was Walter Cronkite, known to many as “the most trusted man in America.”
What Safer did in Vietnam was journalistic heroism. Pure and simple.
It was one reason why the New Yorker’s Michael Arlen, the greatest TV critic of his time called his first book “The Living Room War.” It was why there were people in the 1960s who sneered at “Morley Safer’s War,” as if it were a fictional construct set up by a correspondent for the express purpose of humiliating the government. For the next several years, Safer was a conspicuously danger-courting foreign correspondent for CBS News.
And then, in 1970, he joined “60 Minutes” where he stayed for the next 46 years to become the epitome of urbanity and narrative clarity.
To me – a TV watcher who actually saw in “real time” what Safer had meant to journalism in the mid-1960s – there was something more than a little comic about his work on “60 Minutes” as superb as it was.
Safer was the show’s luxe correspondent. Not always, of course. He still got his hands dirty when required.
But mostly, he was the dapper fellow with the silk handkerchief and wine-soaked smoke-baked larynx who interviewed Anna Wintour, informed us with alarm of the real squalor of the current Orient Express, showed us premium winemaking and made japing fun of postmodern art. (He was a fine realist painter, known for, among other things, his small, droll paintings of the hotel rooms where his profession required him to live much of the time.)
For every prisoner a Safer report got sprung from jail, there seemed to be 15 Safer pieces demonstrating network news urbanity at its purest. His judgment on Buffalo chicken wings, for instance, when our best known local comestible first made it into national consciousness, was awarded this Safer judgment from Olympus: “good junk food.” You couldn’t begrudge Safer’s duties as “60 Minutes” luxe correspondent. It was as if karma had found Safer’s truest self and rewarded him for many decades for what he’d done in the period between the mid-’60s and the time he’d signed on to “60 Minutes.”
It was as if Don Hewitt of “60 Minutes” had taken a great Triple Crown winner and put him out to stud – to walk on the best and sweetest grass, eat the world’s premier oats and earn his glorious keep impregnating future generations with journalistic integrity and narrative mastery.
We now have a teeming internet full of information, misinformation and disinformation, and TV reporters like Brian Williams, whose inability to be Tom Brokaw misled him forever into pretending to be, and Megyn Kelly, whose recent attempt to be Barbara Walters transformed her once-tough questions of Donald Trump into a joke and a fawning embarrassment.
Safer is among those who created a TV journalistic standard that no one else is ever likely to see again. Ever.