The death of Morley Safer is a loss for television journalism; he was an avuncular presence who never minded going for the jugular. We could use more of that.
Safer never made himself the story, unlike some of the more puffed-up, big-name news stars he came up with. He was a curious man whose laid-back presence belied a meticulous attention to detail. Very little escaped his notice, and yet he did not make a big deal of the learning and experience he brought to each story. He made whatever he was talking about or whomever he was interviewing the most interesting thing on the screen. But it takes a great deal of skill to do that: To shape the story or construct a narrative without making it all about the correspondent takes wisdom and a depth of insight and perspective.
And yet for all his calmness, Safer was truly cut from the cloth of the classic “60 Minutes” journalist: He would absolutely deliver a merciless takedown when it was warranted. At a time when most journalists in Vietnam felt hamstrung by the limitations the Pentagon attempted to place on their reporting, Safer showed a village being burned by American soldiers. The pressure to do the kind of reporting the army wanted was immense; Safer and others ignored it.
In his later years, Safer continued to do some hard-news stories, but he was more well-known for his profiles of unusual people or places. I’ve spent the last six years as a juror for the Peabody Awards, where we deliberate over hundreds of news pieces every year. Here’s what I’ve learned about that kind of feature story: It is unbelievably difficult to do well. Straight-ahead news reporting is relatively easy by comparison. In the folksier, more features-oriented realm of TV news, it’s very easy for the reporter to string together a collection of cliches, lapse into sentimentality, or let the subject take control of the interview. Safer never did. You could always feel his mind working, leading the subject and the story away from the easiest, most exploitive or most mawkish path.
And he would ask the hard questions, always. He’d often do it with a smile, but he’d always dig deep.
It’s hard not to contrast his debonair, deceptively steely reporting style with the debacle of Megyn Kelly’s interview of Donald Trump earlier in the week.
It’s not a very well-kept secret that, in those kinds of situations, the producer of the segment can make or break the story, and the producers at “60 Minutes” have always been among the best in the business, in Safer’s heyday and even now. So it’s only fair to point out that Kelly was ill-served by her producers in Tuesday’s special. Each segment was a poorly edited, badly paced mess, not least her remarkably content-free sit-down with Trump.
But most crucially, Kelly failed to hold her subject’s feet to the fire in any meaningful way, and she got endlessly sidetracked. Trump was not about to apologize for his ill-considered retweets or for riling up his minions. Move on. She got her chance to finally go toe-to-toe with a wily, highly evasive subject, and she notably failed to get anything meaningful out of the encounter. Trump ran the table and she offered him minimal resistance, at best.
To be clear, this isn’t a generational thing, and it isn’t a gender thing. Kelly didn’t fail to get a good story because she’s female and younger than the late Morley Safer. But I cannot imagine a world in which Safer would have let himself be so dominated by a subject whose blowhard, thin-skinned persona is so easily exposed.
It’s not just that Safer is gone; it seems like a certain kind of hard-working, elegantly rendered, deeply prepared combativeness is leaking out of the news business. The rise of Trump, and the media’s acquiescence in it, is not an easy thing to witness. It’s made more difficult by the passing of an old lion, one of the original members of the “60 Minutes” team. It’s not that there aren’t diligent, tough journalists out there any more, there just seem to be fewer of them than there were in Safer’s heyday.
It is, I have to say, sad.