The day I showed Safer around the NRB Convention and he did a witty hatchet job on the organization and some of its more well-known members
By Dan Wooding, Founder of ASSIST News Service
NEW YORK CITY, NY (ANS) — Morley Safer, Canadian-born CBS television correspondent who brought the horrors of the Vietnam War into the living rooms of America in the 1960s and was a mainstay of the network’s newsmagazine “60 Minutes” for almost five decades, died of pneumonia on Thursday (May 12, 2016) at his home in Manhattan.
Robert D. McFadden of The New York Times, described Mr. Safer was “one of television’s most celebrated journalists, a durable reporter familiar to millions on ‘60 Minutes,’ the Sunday night staple whose signature is a relentlessly ticking stopwatch.
“By the time CBS announced his retirement on May 11 (2016), Safer had broadcast 919 “60 Minutes” reports, profiling international heroes and villains, exposing frauds and corruption, giving voice to whistle-blowers and chronicling the trends of an ever-changing America.”
He went on to say, “Over the next four decades Mr. Safer profiled writers, politicians, opera stars, homeless people and the unemployed, and produced features on shoddy building practices, strip mining, victims of bureaucracy, waterfront crime, Swiss bank accounts, heart attack treatments, problems of sleeplessness, cultural nabobs and other subjects, many suggested by staff members and viewers.
“In contrast to the often abrasive Mr. Wallace, Mr. Safer produced witty pieces on the lighter side of life: the game of croquet, Tupperware parties, children’s beauty pageants, experiments in communication with apes, and oil-rich Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates — ‘a place,’ as he put it, ‘with free housing, free furniture, free color television, free electricity, free telephones, no property taxes, no sales taxes — no taxes, period.”
The report said that in the studio or reporting on the road — he often traveled 200,000 miles a year for “60 Minutes” — Mr. Safer was an affable interviewer, asking questions the man in the street might if he had the chance. He was well aware of television’s power to exploit emotions and was typically moderate, if persistent, in his commentaries.
In 1968, he married Jane Fearer, an anthropologist and author. He is also survived by their daughter, Sarah Safer; a brother and sister; and three grandchildren. He had homes in Manhattan and Chester, Conn.
I met Morley Safer some years back when I was working as a volunteer assistant press officer for the NRB Convention in Washington, DC. It was during the strange era of the strutting televangelists like Jim Baker, Rex Humbard, Oral Roberts and Jimmy Swaggart.
During the same year that I met Morley Safer, I had previously spent time interviewing Soviet Christian hero, Georgi Vins, in his room on the 47th floor of a New York hotel. Vins, who had overseen some 2,000 congregations in the Soviet Union, had just been released after spending 8 years in the Gulag camps.
Not long after this, I met him again in Washington, DC, at the National Religious Broadcasters Convention. I could see he felt completely out of place amongst the flamboyant broadcasters; this came to a head as I watched him take a seat in the front row of a live broadcast of the “Jim and Tammy Show.”
I stood at the side to watch his reaction and, as I expected, he was horrified with what he saw. The circus-like atmosphere, a long way from the underground services he was used to in Russia, appalled him so much that after about ten minutes, he stood up and stormed out.
I followed him and asked him what he made of what he had just seen. In broken English, he spluttered, “This is terrible. It is nothing but a show.” I got the feeling that Georgi Vins was going to have a struggle with some of the excesses of American televangelism, and I was correct. In some ways, it must have been more difficult for him to cope with that than the years of persecution he endured in the Soviet Union.
For instance, one media report called “The Televangelists’ Hall of Shame!” said, “We must start by paying homage to the living legends: three men who have done more to demolish the reputation of the modern American evangelist than Madalyn Murray-O’Hair could have done in her wildest dreams: Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and Oral Roberts.”
With this kind of publicity, it wasn’t surprising that Safer suddenly turned up unannounced at the NRB Press Office with a “60 minutes” crew and asked to be shown around. As I was the only person there, I did just that, and soon he was talking with some of the more unusual people there — like an Anglo man who dressed up in native American costume, and ministered to — native Americans.
After that one was “in the can”, I saw Morley Safer’s eyes light up when he came across televangelist/pastor, Ernest Angley, who was wearing, as one writer described it, “a helmet-like toupee,” and a rose in his jacket. Safer seemed to enjoy every minute of his interview with this faith healer, who the late comedian Robin Williams, caricatured as the “Reverend Earnest Angry” on the live, Grammy Award-winning 1979 album “Reality…What a Concept.”
Then came Jimmy Swaggart, who was then at the height of his fame, and had during the previous year condemned a fellow television evangelist, Jim Bakker, as “a cancer on the body of Christ,” but later confessed to sins of his own and begged to be forgiven. Speaking before a congregation of 8,000 people at his World Faith Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Swaggart gave his now infamous and tearful “I Have Sinned” speech after becoming caught up in a sex scandal in 1988 when he was caught in the company of a prostitute.
After completing his various interviews, Safer thanked me and said, “I’ve got what I wanted,” and was off, a big smile on his face.
It wasn’t long when his rather hilarious piece was broadcast on “60 Minutes” and many at NRB were horrified with seeing the way he clever way he had constructed his story.
But worse was to come with a whole series of televangelist scandals, but that is now history, and NRB is a changed organization, partly due, in my opinion, to Morley Safer and his portrayal of some of its members.
Some years later, after Jim Bakker had been released from prison and was back doing his live show from the floor of the NRB Convention, I spotted him and told him that I was probably the first journalist to ever expose him. I explained that it was while I was still with the Sunday People in London, when I had come over to the States to attend the convention. The interviewed with Bakker was called “Praise the Lord and Pass the Loot.”
Rather than being upset, Jim Bakker promptly asked me to be a guest on his show and began by telling the viewers, “This man was the first journalist to ever expose me, and now we are brothers in Christ.”
What days they were, and now Morley Safer has gone, but what memories he has left behind. Thank you, Morley, for all of your insightful work, even your NRB piece.
Photo captions: 1) Morley Safer in Vietnam. 2) George Vins. 3) Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. 4) Ernest Angley. 5) Jimmy Swaggart making his “I have sinned” broadcast. 6) Jim Bakker and Dan Wooding at the NRB Convention.
About the writer: Dan Wooding, 75, is an award-winning winning author, broadcaster and journalist who was born in Nigeria of British missionary parents, and is now living in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for nearly 53 years. They have two sons, Andrew and Peter, and six grandchildren, who all live in the UK. Dan is the founder and international director of the ASSIST News Service (ANS), and the author or co-author of some 45 books. Dan has a radio show and two TV shows, all based in Southern California. Before moving to America, he had previously been a senior reporter with two of two of Great Britain’s top-circulation newspapers, as well as an interviewer for BBC Radio in London.
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