Familiar Face at the Podium

May 16, 2005  •  Post A Comment

By Lee Alan Hill

Special to TelevisionWeek

When “60 Minutes” correspondent and legendary newscaster Morley Safer hosts the 64th George Foster Peabody Awards luncheon and ceremonies today at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York today it will be partly, he said, “because I’ve won a few times, and the least I could do was say yes when asked.”

Mr. Safer, has, in fact, won three Peabody Awards, the first in 1965 for his coverage of the Vietnam War for CBS News, and the other two as part of the “60 Minutes” team. He said he is happy to host because of “the nature of the award itself. There are a lot of made-up kudos thrown together just because someone can fill a room or raise funds for an organization. But the Peabody Awards people take it seriously, because it really is something that honors achievement.”

“Not all our hosts have been Peabody winners,” said Dr. Horace Newcomb, the director of the awards, which are administered by the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. “But Morley Safer is what the Peabody stands for. We always say there is only one criterion for the Peabody: excellence.”

Mr. Safer said he feels “a great deal of pride” about the first Peabody he won for his Vietnam War coverage. Specifically, it was for a piece he did for the “CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite” showing the U.S. Marines burning the village of Cam Ne, a report that many believe changed the way American war coverage was done.

“When I look back on covering that war, I do not envy those covering the war in Iraq or wars anywhere else,” he said. “Vietnam had its dangers, but we felt relatively safe walking the streets where we were. You can’t say that about Iraq, and the number of newspeople who have died reflects that. It was different in many ways.

“For one thing, the technology has changed monumentally,” Mr. Safer said. “The cameras are lighter. And now it can be broadcast live. We used to have to send the film back to be developed, and that meant waiting to file.

“I’m not sure the wait wasn’t a bad thing,” he said. “I think it gave the reporter chance for reflection about the story, and that time for reflection may have made for more texture in the coverage.”

Mr. Safer has been with CBS News since 1964, when he joined the network as a correspondent based in London after working as a news correspondent and producer in his native Canada for several years.

His work in broadcast news, including 35 years with “60 Minutes,” has brought him 12 Emmy Awards, three Overseas Press Club Awards and a George Polk Memorial Award. Recently, he won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award’s first-ever prize for domestic television for his “School for the Homeless” report on “60 Minutes.”

“Something that has really changed about news coverage is the loss of the cooperative spirit,” Mr. Safer said. “When I was in Vietnam, the military let us have much freedom. You could hitch a ride on a military plane to cover a story. Now the military has total control of you. The result is you can’t go out and cover the stories in the same way we did for the simple reason that you can’t get to the story.”

Mr. Safer said that despite the restrictions, “The reporters have done awfully well, though I do wish they had longer segments. When we were covering Vietnam, we had three, four even 4½ minutes to tell our story. But those days seem to be gone.”