Permit a few words of tribute to pay my respects to Morley Safer, who died last week aged 84.
At a time when the public's trust in news organization has reached record lows in Gallup Polls--some six out of ten respondents declaring that they have "not very much" or no confidence in mass media--Morley Safer's life and work is a reminder that once upon a time there were honest reporters who worked in television news, who told it like it is, who covered stories--instead of presenting "narratives."
I never had the pleasure of meeting Safer, but favorably crossed paths with the legendary 60 Minutes anchor in relation to two of his 919 stories.
In 1993, while I was writing about the National Endowment for the Arts, Safer hosted a segment of 60 Minutes titled "But Is It Art?" This brief glance at the art biz was so devastating to the art establishment that both The Washington Post and New York Times reminded readers upon his death that disapproval of Safer's "Emperor has no clothes" report had followed him to his grave.
Obituary writer Robert D. McFadden took a swipe at the dead in a significantly non-front page Times obituary:
Still, Mr. Safer sometimes raised hackles, as when he questioned the basic premise of abstract art in a 1993 report, calling much of it “worthless junk” destined for “the trash heap of art history” and saying it was overvalued by the “hype” of critics, art dealers and auction houses. The art world recoiled, but Mr. Safer, who described himself as a “Sunday painter,” stood his ground.
In 2012, he aired another blast at modern art, visiting a Miami Beach show that he called “an upscale flea market” and complaining that “the art trade” was a “booming cutthroat commodities market.” In a commentary, the New York Times art critic Roberta Smith called Mr. Safer’s performance “a relatively toothless, if still quite clueless, exercise,” adding:
“Basically, he and his camera crew spent a few hours last December swanning around Art Basel Miami Beach, the hip art fair, and venturing nowhere else, letting the spectacle of this event, passed through quickly and superficially, stand for the whole art world.”