Morley Safer, a CBS television correspondent who brought the horrors of the Vietnam War into the living rooms of America in the 1960s and was a mainstay of the network’s newsmagazine “60 Minutes” for almost five decades, died on Thursday at his home in Manhattan. He was 84.
His wife, Jane Safer, said he died of pneumonia.
Mr. Safer was one of television’s most celebrated journalists, a durable reporter familiar to millions on “60 Minutes,” the Sunday night staple whose signature is a relentlessly ticking stopwatch. By the time CBS announced his retirement on May 11, Mr. Safer had broadcast 919 “60 Minutes” reports, profiling international heroes and villains, exposing frauds and corruption, giving voice to whistle-blowers and chronicling the trends of an ever-changing America.
Mr. Safer joined the program, created by Don Hewitt, in 1970, two years after its inception. His tenure eventually outlasted those of his colleagues Mike Wallace, Dan Rather, Harry Reasoner, Ed Bradley and Andy Rooney, as he became the senior star of a new repertory group of reporters on what has endured for decades as the most popular and profitable news program on television.
But to an earlier generation of Americans, and to many colleagues and competitors, he was regarded as the best television journalist of the Vietnam era, an adventurer whose vivid reports exposed the nation to the hard realities of what the writer Michael J. Arlen, in the title of his 1969 book, called the “Living-Room War.”
With David Halberstam of The New York Times, Stanley Karnow of The Washington Post and a few other print reporters, Mr. Safer shunned the censored, euphemistic Saigon press briefings they called the “5 o’clock follies” and went out with the troops. Mr. Safer and his Vietnamese cameraman, Ha Thuc Can, gave Americans powerful close-ups of firefights and search-and-destroy missions filmed hours before airtime. The news team’s helicopter was shot down once, but they were unhurt and undeterred.
In August 1965, Mr. Safer covered an attack on the hamlet of Cam Ne about 10 miles west of the port city of Da Nang. Intelligence had identified Cam Ne as a Vietcong sanctuary, though it had been abandoned by the enemy before the Americans moved in. Mr. Safer’s account depicted Marines, facing no resistance, firing rockets and machine guns into the hamlet; burning its thatched huts with flamethrowers, grenades and cigarette lighters as old men and women begged them to stop; then destroying rice stores as the villagers were led away sobbing.
“This is what the war in Vietnam is all about,” he reported. “The Vietcong 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.”
Between him and Ed Bradley, they were the only reasons I watched “60 Minutes.”