Monday, May 23, 2016

Morley Safer, Remembered...

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.”

Likewise, in the Washington Post, Matt Schudel reminded readers that Safer had never been forgiven for his transgression of art world dogma:

Mr. Safer incurred the wrath of the art establishment with his cheeky 1993 segment “Yes . . . But Is It Art?” He quoted the baffling commentary of art “experts” and showed auctions at which prices soared into the millions. He openly questioned whether the creations of such celebrated artists as Jeff Koons, Julian Schabel, Cy Twombly and Jean-Michel Basquiat were anything more than “worthless junk.”
The art world was incensed and bore a grudge for years. When Mr. Safer later tried to enter New York’s Museum of Modern Art for a “60 Minutes” segment, he was barred at the door.
That Safer was an art lover and amateur painter, his wife and daughter arts administrators, seems not to have helped him in the least. Safer impressively "stood by his story," regardless. It was encouraging to this critic of the art world to have a respected newsman come to the same conclusions, independently, and not back down under pressure.
My second encounter was while writing a section of PBS: Behind the Screen in relation to Safer's experience with Bill Moyers during the Johnson administration. 
I had heard that Safer and Moyers feuded over LBJ's attempts to get him fired by CBS for his reporting on problems with the Vietnam War, while Moyers served as Johnson's press secretary. 
Safer had written critically of Moyers in his own memoir, Flashbacks: On Returning to Vietnam. He blamed Moyers, whom he characterized as "the sometimes overly pious public defender of liberal virtue, the First Amendment and rights of minorities," for Johnson's picking on him:  "Johnson threatened that, unless CBS got rid of me and 'cleaned up its act,' the White House would 'go public' with information about Safer's 'Communist ties.'" Mike Wallace later leaked a memo from Moyers "on steps we can take to improve coverage of the Vietnam War. . . . We will never eliminate altogether the irresponsible and prejudiced coverage of men like Peter Arnett and (Morley) Safer, men who are not American and who do not have the basic American interest at heart."
Safer's revenge was to characterize Moyers as a sleaze bag:
[Moyers'] part in Lyndon Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover's bugging of Martin Luther King's private life, the leaks to the press and diplomatic corps, the surveillance of civil rights groups at the 1964 Democratic Convention, and his request for damaging information from Hoover on members of the Goldwater campaign suggest he was not only a good soldier but a gleeful retainer feeding the appetites of Lyndon Johnson.
In addition, at a time when a number of working journalists (including Moyers himself) refused to talk to me, Safer gave me a telephone interview which helped me to write my book, although I am sure he disagreed with much that I had to say.
From that time onwards, I especially looked forward to watching Safer on 60 Minutes, with deep respect for his integrity.  Morley Safer was an honorable, decent, and authentic person. In other words, a real mensch.
I miss him already.