Sixteen years after the first broadcast of 60 Minutes in September of 1968, Playboy recruited freelance journalist Morgan Strong to conduct “a candid conversation about hard news, muckraking and showbiz with the creator and correspondents of America’s most trusted television show”—60 Minutes.
Spanning five months, the interviews took place mostly one on one with producer Don Hewitt and journalists Ed Bradley, Mike Wallace, Diane Sawyer, Harry Reasoner and Morley Safer.
Safer, a venerable reporter who stayed on the Sunday night television staple for nearly five decades, died Thursday at his home in Manhattan at the age of 84. In 1985, as part of the introduction to Playboy’s interview, editors wrote that his “combination of light, whimsically written pieces and often hardhitting dispatches made him a trusted younger brother.” Below, we’ve compiled Safer’s excerpts from the team interview, as well as Strong’s report on his talks for the magazine.
“Grilling Mike Wallace was a breeze. The assignment began with an interview with him at his home in Martha’s Vineyard. Wallace, who had put off Playboy’s requests before, was supposedly reluctant when it came to the other end of a microphone, and given his reputation as the toughest journalistic gunslinger in town, I expected trouble. But he couldn’t have been more cooperative. Perhaps it was the setting: His vacation home, with a manicured lawn sloping down to a picturesque, yacht filled bay, is a tough place to be surly. His autobiography, ‘Close Encounters,’ had just come out to favorable reviews, and he had reupped with CBS for a reported $1,000,000 a year. The weather was nice, too.
"Next on our hit list was Don Hewitt, the energetic founder and producer of the show. My conversations with him (and subsequent ones with the other correspondents) took place on the ninth floor of the skyscraper across the street from the sprawling CBS Broadcast Center on West 57th Street in New York City. A vast warren of cubbyholes and spacious offices occupying nearly the entire floor, the nerve center for ’60 Minutes’ roughly corresponds to the hierarchy of the show itself: bright, airy offices with views of New York Harbor for Hewitt and the star correspondents; but for the producers, those often nameless people whom many credit with the show’s imagination and solidity, a series of spare, cramped offices. That, as they say everywhere else, is showbiz.
"Speaking of nerve centers, the impression one gets of Hewitt, forever interrupting himself or jumping up to resolve a crisis, is of a combination of Edward R. Murrow and Mel Brooks–perhaps without the latter’s level of high anxiety. With his tweedy look, he doesn’t even dress like the CBS powerhouse he obviously is. I had been told that he had the attention span of a gnat, and though that was largely true, he obviously enjoyed this chance to alight from time to time and talk about his work at some length. In fact, when we first sat down to talk, we were chatting about similarities between the kinds of interviews Playboy does and the exhaustive profiles ’60 Minutes’ does, and Hewitt remarked, 'Yeah, I kind of wondered when you guys would get around to doing us.’ "Beyond Hewitt’s office are the ones belonging to Wallace, Safer, Bradley and Reasoner. Sawyer’s office, being prepared for her when I was there, has taken the space formerly allotted to Captain Kangaroo. That’s showbiz, too.
"Although similar to the others in space and layout, Bradley’s office is the most interesting–the sound of soft jazz is piped in continuously, and plants hang everywhere in an easy and cluttered atmosphere. Reasoner’s office is filled to the ceiling with books and reminded me of a crusty judge’s chambers. Safer’s wall is adorned with the mangled propeller of an airplane that he cracked up once while attempting a take-off. Since Safer is not a pilot, he was unable to offer me any sort of rational explanation.
"Here’s what I liked best: Although there were all sorts of electronic editing gadgets and screens scrolling text throughout the offices on the ninth floor, I noticed that by the desks of Hewitt and the three senior correspondents of 60 Minutes were placed clunky old manual typewriters. It was comforting.”
Morley, you began your television career at the Canadian Broadcasting Company.
MORLEY SAFER: Well, I began at newspapers before that, at Reuters. I was a reporter on the street at 19. Then I became the London correspondent for CBC, and CBS hired me from there. They kept me in London and then, after four or five months, they sent me to Vietnam.
Morley Safer’s war, as it was called, because of your hard-hitting pieces.
SAFER: Yeah, well, Morley Safer’s war is first of all not true, and secondly, if true, it’s a dubious distinction.
Your reporting was decidedly antiwar. You managed to infuriate President Johnson at one point.
SAFER: I had some problems with Johnson; I had some problems with the Pentagon; I had some problems with the American mission in Vietnam. [Laughs]
You stayed in Vietnam for three years and then went back to London for CBS. Hewitt spotted you in 1970, when he was looking for a replacement for Reasoner. What were you doing that caught his eye?
SAFER: I was in the middle of burying DeGaulle. I got a call while I was feeding my report on the general’s funeral by satellite to New York. Reasoner had just left, or announced he was going to leave, to go to ABC, for which I will be forever grateful, and they offered me the job.
You, perhaps more than the others, had a tough time of it when you joined the show, right?
SAFER: Well, I was the new kid, with a lot of pressure, because we were trying something new. We were utterly unheard of. I was utterly a stranger to working in a head office. I guess from my earliest days in newspapers, I was always away from the brass. My staff, when I was abroad, consisted of me. The brass was 12 or 13 hours away. They could never find you, so you could deal with them on your own terms. Suddenly, I was surrounded by guys who were telling me what to do and watching me do what I did. And I was being hovered over all the time by these damn people.
You had doubts that 60 Minutes would survive; wasn’t part of the deal that if it folded, you would get your job in London back?
SAFER: There was one condition: that when it folded, I would get my old job back. The record of serious broadcasts was and is terrible. So I made certain that my future was going to be all right. I would go back to where I was going to be happy. I had never lived in New York or in the United States before.
As the new guy, did you feel you were in battle with Mike over turf?
SAFER: Yeah, and I had never worked in a situation like this before. There is intense competition around here.
SAFER: Mike and my friendship–it’s no secret–has undergone quite serious strains over the years but always sort of comes together again, as they say. We’re a bit older. He’s much older. [Laughs] And those things we fought over don’t seem like the end of the world anymore.
But as an independent-minded reporter, you must think it’s fitting, in retrospect, that your career led you toward 60 Minutes.
SAFER: I’ve never used the word career. I mean, I woke up one day and I was a reporter; I woke up another day and I was a foreign correspondent. I woke up another day, I was one of two guys on a “prestigious” broadcast. I never planned anything; I never applied for anything. I was really very lucky.
Morley, how do you feel about criticism?
SAFER: Some of it may be deserved. Some of it, I don’t know, but it strikes me that the guys across the country who write about television are people whom the editors don’t trust to go out and cover stories. Of course, in some cases, there’s something like, not quite jealousy but a competition print reporters feel, to which I’m not unsympathetic. When we go out and cover a story, the kind of resources we can bring to bear on it can’t be matched by many publications, if any. I’m going to Lagos next week. It’s not even a go-ahead story, I’m just going. There’s a guy there I want to see about a story. Even the rich newspapers won’t spend that kind of money.
I’ve never used the word career. I mean, I woke up one day and I was a reporter; I woke up another day and I was a foreign correspondent. I woke up another day, I was one of two guys on a ‘prestigious’ broadcast. I never planned anything; I never applied for anything. I was really very lucky.
Do you agree with Don that 60 Minutes shouldn’t be singled out because of showbiz techniques?
SAFER: Art Buchwald does showbiz three times a week! My God, he invents characters in your daily newspaper. If we’re going to compare what we do with, say, being columnists, something like that, sure, there are entertainment aspects of it. You look for exciting and interesting and affecting stories. You don’t look for boring stories, stories of little consequence. The same people who make these allegations are all writing in newspapers. And some of those front pages are much more outrageous than that or more hokey or whatever you want to call it. What do we have to defend here?
You feel you do a job equal to, if not better than, a print reporter’s?
SAFER: The fact is–and I can’t prove I’m right statistically, but I know I’m right–we, in covering the news, do a better job and a much more accurate job than any newspaper in the country.
That’s a lot of territory. Do you really believe that?
SAFER: Absolutely. I think we check out our facts more carefully than the newspapers do, particularly monopoly newspapers such as The New York Times, which in terms of big journalism is the only newspaper in New York. When we’re wrong, we’re more open about it. We don’t cover as many stories and we don’t cover them in the depth The New York Times can.
Your pictures can distort, however. The tight shots, for instance–something we’ve discussed with Mike–can suggest guilt or innocence without being accurate.
SAFER: Your point taken, there’s no question that people who have great powers of persuasion, who are extremely articulate, present a better case than people with very weak powers of persuasion or people who are inarticulate. They may be as right or as wrong, but the articulate one will have a better chance. No question, but it’s television! That’s where we work!
Have you ever used the technique of ambush journalism, Morley?
SAFER: I did it once. We walked into some villain’s office. It was a story on commodity-option dealing in which one company seemed to control the entire industry and turned out to be an utter phony, as it happened. We walked into the company’s offices in Detroit with the camera on, because it was the only chance we were going to get to see what the boiler room looked like.
Did you feel it was justified as the only way to get the story?
SAFER: I don’t feel particularly good about having done that, honestly. It has as much to do with your own sense of, or your own comfort with, something as it has to do with anything else. There are ways of doing a story.
In contrast to the hard stuff you were doing in Vietnam and elsewhere, your 60 Minutes pieces escape most of the criticism. You’re perceived to be the white hat. Do you agree?
SAFER: Don’t tell that to the National Council of Churches.
We know it was going to sue you for an unflattering piece you did on it. But in a general sense, you’ve escaped the criticisms, you’ve never ended up in court. Dan Rather did and, of course, Mike is spending a lot of time there.
SAFER: Well, I’ve been sued a number of times. I’ve never gone to court. I’ve been very lucky in that respect. I like to think it’s because we’re so nicely pinned down, that every T is so carefully crossed that they’ve pulled back a bit. Now, I’m not suggesting that those others aren’t! [Points his finger at the interviewer]
No. But you attribute it to something–again, perhaps, to a nonassertive style?
SAFER: I think there are ways to do things. You’re perceived in a certain way because of the way you do something. I do things differently from the way Mike does or from the way Rather does–no better or worse but different. Is that a calculated difference? Of course not! I’m not an actor, and I’d be a fool if I thought I were. If you look at the body of work I’ve done, I’ve always tried to mix up the kind of stories I do, just to keep my attention focused. I could never function on a one-note kind of job in journalism. Even in Vietnam, I tried to keep from tripping over my own footprints on every single story. I’ve always preferred to do stories, whether soft or hard, that are observed. That’s a conceit of mine. As important as interviews are, and I do them, when you’re talking with people, they’re often selling something. They’re giving a totally biased point of view. I think my eye of the middle-distance observer is often more accurate. I like to write the pieces more than I like to sit and listen to people talk.
Ed, how do you react to the assertion that you correspondents are front men for your producers?
ED BRADLEY: See all of those files over there? All those things are research materials! I’ve got a story that I’m going to do next week. [Walks over to cabinet and brings back folders] I’ve got six, seven, no, eight, folders of material that I have to read. [Heatedly] But I’ve got to have all this material at my fingertips. Now, if that makes me a front man, then I’m a front man!
SAFER: That charge denies that we [correspondents] have any journalistic intent or any brain, I guess. Do the producers do a lot of research? Yes. Do they produce masses of stuff? Yes. Do they always reduce the masses of stuff? Sometimes. Do they write out areas of questions? Of course. This is a collaborative work.
The question is, where do you come in?
SAFER: When it comes down to it, it’s you interviewing the guy. But we’re all reporters here. If it were anything else, if it were as you or the critics describe it, the broadcast wouldn’t work. Honestly. There is a lot of interaction among us and with Don. And you can argue with Don. He doesn’t issue edicts to people, either to the producers or to the correspondents. If he did [laughs], the edicts would last about 30 seconds.
Morley, we were on the subject of checkbook journalism. How do you feel about it?
SAFER: Well, it’s not something I’m comfortable with, partly because the more you do it, the more you’re going to have to do it. I think it’s a lousy precedent to set. I think there’s a danger: When the facts become a commodity, there may be efforts to enhance them and thus the value of the commodity.
Morley, the story most associated with you, and perhaps typical of some of the victories 60 Minutes has had, was the one concerning Lenell Geter, falsely convicted of a crime, whom you got out of jail. It demonstrated why, in the eyes of many, 60 Minutes is considered the nation’s ombudsman, the people’s defense counsel.
SAFER: We spent a long time on that story, I’ll tell you, the three of us–Suzanne St. Pierre, producer, Marti Galovic, who was the researcher, and I. We went through these highs and lows that you go through, but never at the same time. [Laughs] It was a very satisfying story. You go into those pieces, as I don’t have to remind you, with some doubts. It’s the only way to go into that kind of piece.
SAFER: You can’t go in being a true believer in the guy’s innocence, because that way lies folly. I went in with some great doubts about his innocence. In the final analysis, all we said was that we had some serious doubts about this guy’s guilt. I think we ultimately convinced the authorities of what, in their hearts, they knew had been a sloppy job. Also, I think it is fair to say that when a poor black man in Texas is brought into court, the assumption of guilt is overwhelming.
60 Minutes has also spawned a new cottage industry: teaching businessmen and politicians and the Pentagon how to deal with television interviews.
SAFER: I think that’s about as valid an industry as snake oil.
Are they selling the public a bill of goods?
SAFER: How can they know what 60 Minutes wants to do when most of the time, we don’t know what 60 Minutes wants to do? These guys have no understanding of journalism. They have no real feel for what reporters think, what the process is. They think it’s all cut and dried: Step A follows step B. Journalism is erratic. It’s often irrational. It’s the way certain facts fall into place. There is no process.
Some of your critics, whether corporate or individual, bring up the charge of “selective editing.” How do you plead?
DON HEWITT: Good God, I’ve never known a newspaperman in my life who didn’t edit selectively.
Don’t you concede a potential for distortion in your choice of the outtakes that aren’t useful to a story?
HEWITT: No, wait a minute. That’s a very important point. Outtakes are the news that isn’t fit to print. Outtakes are what we put into the wastebasket. It’s just that everybody has a right to come in and rummage around in our wastebasket. The newspapers have found that words like outtakes sound evil. “All right, Louie, what did you do with the outtakes?” That’s ridiculous! Outtakes are what we decide is not worth putting on the air.
What about the issue of oversimplifying, of trying to get every story down to 12 or 14 minutes?
SAFER: That’s a tough question. I don’t know. I think we try like hell to be fair. But space is the curse of all journalism, whether you’re writing for The New York Times or Playboy or us.
Have there been occasions when you’ve bent the rules in putting together a piece?
HARRY REASONER: There are the CBS standards that say, for example, that you cannot use a question from one part of the interview with an answer from another. You cannot stage; you cannot re-enact unless you say you’re doing it. But you know the rules when you do a story. Normally, unless it’s a very important person whose time is very valuable, we shoot with one camera. That means you shoot reverse questions. You’re shooting over the subject’s shoulder to get the correspondents asking questions for editing purposes. There is a famous story about why the rule that an interviewee must stay while you do the reverse shots, even though you don’t need him, was made. When Walter Ulbricht was the Communist head of East Germany, Dan Schorr, then with CBS, got a rare interview with him. It was a real coup; it ran for a half hour on prime time. A month or so later, Paley was in Europe and had dinner with Schorr. He said, “That was a great interview! What I don’t understand, though, is how you could dare to be so tough on him.” Dan said, “Oh, he wasn’t there then.” The next day, the rule came down to have the interviewee stay and listen to the questions. [Laughs]
SAFER: Now we have very strict rules about editing. I can’t recite them all to you, but they’re here.
Give us an example.
SAFER: Well, we can’t do what you do all the time and what newspapers do all the time–which is perfectly legitimate, by the way–and that is to edit out of time sequence. If during this Interview we were finishing and you ended up saying, “Thank you very much, and by the way, did you ever commit a crime?” and I said, “Oh, yeah, I robbed a bank in 1948. I got away with $50,000,” I think I know what your lead would be. Right?
SAFER: You’d take that exchange and put it at the beginning of your Interview and go from there. We can’t do it that way. It doesn’t mean that we do things absolutely chronologically. We might put that quote up at the top, but we would have to go through this torturous dance to explain what we were doing.
The mechanical requirements are simply different. Splicing film is more exacting than editing in print, granted. But the contextual integrity is the issue.
SAFER: Come on, with you guys in print, if the guy said it, the guy said it. It doesn’t matter where in the piece you put it. But it matters where in the piece we put it. Our critics say, “You took it out of context.” Well, you guys take it out of context all the time! Our rules–which I think are not good rules, by the way–are a lot tougher.
They’re not good? Why not?
SAFER: Some of them are just foolish. We shouldn’t be compelled to be fair; we should be fair, period. But I think some of the minutiae of the editing process are silly. I guess there has never been any other form of journalism so acutely examined as ours.
By the print media?
SAFER: Of course! [With some exasperation] And not just by the print media, but by the public, by the people we go out and do stories on!
I’ve always preferred to do stories, whether soft or hard, that are observed. That’s a conceit of mine. As important as interviews are, and I do them, when you’re talking with people, they’re often selling something.
When you go out and do a story, do you find that the celebrity of being one of the 60 Minutes correspondents has an effect on you?
SAFER: I think it makes you seek what you used to assume–privacy or anonymity or whatever you want to call it. Sometimes you have questions about people: Are they being nice simply because they want to know somebody who’s visible?
But the show provides access, certainly?
SAFER: People return your calls. You usually get a table at a restaurant. And professionally, it’s good. If somebody doesn’t want to give you an interview, he wouldn’t give it to Jesus Christ if he called.
Morley, Don feels that the broadcast appeals to the great middle class. How, given your salaries and perks, can you maintain your perspective?
SAFER: That’s a fair question but not only to highly paid, highly visible journalists–a fair question for every reporter, including somebody on a small-town newspaper, because reporters as a breed tend to be pretty arrogant, to feel, if not above the crowd, then apart from the crowd. It’s a strength and a weakness at the same time. But does a doctor stop being a doctor when he becomes rich? I think he feels the same responsibility. If you’re a professional, you’re able to separate your life. Look, I was a reporter in the street at 19 and never went to college. So, obviously, my perceptions aren’t that much different from most people’s.
Let’s finish by returning to the theme of what makes this show tick. It doesn’t appear to have much to do with a Harvard Business School approach to management or organization.
SAFER: [Laughs] It’s haphazard, very much unplanned. People write books about the broadcast and analyze it as if Hewitt and the rest of us sat around this big table plotting this show.
Morley, do you have any criticisms of the broadcast?
SAFER: They would probably be benign.
Benign criticisms are better than none.
SAFER: Oh, I don’t know. They really are benign. Well, one of them is not so benign, but I’m not going to tell you what it is.
SAFER: You won’t tell anybody, right?
No, it’s just between you and us.
SAFER: I’d like to see more soft pieces–arts pieces–on the air.
That’s pretty benign. But wouldn’t you lose some of your audience?
SAFER: I think that when you have the advantage of what 60 Minutes covers, you can do it. We wouldn’t do it if it weren’t interesting. I’m probably the only one who would say that. I would also like to feel less compelled to tie things into neat packages and to leave some time to explain the contradictions. It may tend to leave some people confused. That’s not a bad thing.