The tribute that 60 Minutes aired in conjunction with Morley Safer’s retirement, and his death four days later, prompted an outpouring of praise for a brilliant, 60-year journalism career in which Safer distinguished himself not only for his work on the weekly CBS News broadcast, but also for his earlier reporting in Vietnam. While some of the stories discussed how he started in journalism with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and even had the honor of using Edward R. Murrow’s desk at the CBS News bureau in London, the reports have neglected the influence that Murrow actually had on Safer’s career through the influence of one of his protégés: Charles Collingwood.
Safer joined CBS in London in 1965 and soon went to Vietnam, where his reporting prompted Fred Friendly, Murrow’s onetime producer and the news division’s president when Safer was hired, to call it “Morley Safer’s War.” Safer made enough of a splash with one of his first reports—showing Marines using their cigarette lighters to burn down Vietnamese huts—that President Lyndon Johnson called and cursed out CBS President Frank Stanton for airing it. After two years in Vietnam, Safer did a documentary on his experiences and then returned to London as bureau chief amid the aura of Murrow.
At the time, based in London was the chief foreign correspondent of CBS News, Charles Collingwood. He was one of a group known as “Murrow’s Boys” because Murrow had hired them to cover World War II. The group included such luminaries of broadcast journalism as Eric Sevareid, later the longtime commentator on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite; Howard K. Smith, later an anchor for ABC News; Winston Burdett, for two decades CBS’s legendary Vatican correspondent; and Richard C. Hottelet, who covered the United Nations for 25 years and was the last of the Murrow Boys when he died at age 97 in 2014.
Most of Murrow’s cadre either didn’t fare as well on television as they did on radio or weren’t big fans of the medium. Of all of them, Collingwood seemed well suited for broadcasting. Born in 1917, he had been attending Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship when he started working as a United Press reporter, then met Murrow in 1940. For the interview, he wore orange socks, and Murrow later told him, “I almost didn’t hire you that day … when you walked in earing those god-awful loud Argyle socks, I wondered if you were really right for us.”
Collingwood proved to be right, covering the war, then returning to the U.S. as a White House correspondent and then anchor of various programs. Eventually, he took over for Murrow as host of Person to Person, a celebrity interview program, and hosted Jackie Kennedy’s guided tour of the White House in 1962. Between his ease with celebrities— he married an actress, Louise Allbritton— and his urbane, stylish appearance, newer executives began to think of him as more of a celebrity than as a journalist. As Gary Paul Gates, a longtime CBS News writer, wrote in a history of the news division, Air Time, “That was extremely unfair to Collingwood. The man, after all, had trudged through the mud of European battlefields as a reporter, which was a lot more dues than most of his detractors had ever paid.”
Unhappy that his career had stalled in New York, where Cronkite had won the big prize of anchoring the evening newscast, Collingwood talked his bosses into sending him back overseas. In 1964, he returned to London, covering all of Europe and roaming the world as what another longtime CBS correspondent, Bob Simon, called “the consummate chief foreign correspondent … elegant and well dressed and articulate.” In the same year, CBS hired Safer.
Collingwood worked with Safer, and they became close friends— and, Gates wrote, Collingwood became “to some extent, Safer’s mentor.” As longtime reporter Peter Boyer put it, Safer was “given advice on everything from attire to writing and broadcasting technique, and generally polished up by the older correspondent.” For his part, Safer said, “I can’t say I had a serious mentor, but Charles Collingwood, whom I worked with in London, in Vietnam, and in Eastern Europe, became a good friend.” Safer later wrote that Collingwood “was a scholar when broadcasting no longer wanted one, amused more than appalled by the contract-crazed chorus girls and boys who’ve taken over the podium.”
Safer was a veteran television reporter when the two met, but he clearly learned from one of the field’s pioneers. Together, they interviewed General William Westmoreland for a CBS News special and covered numerous events around Europe, including the 1968 leftist uprising in Paris, where Safer even could tease his older colleague. Collingwood showed up wearing what Safer called “the most absurd coat I’d ever seen—a Holmesian thing, not a cape, but huge, skirted, with sleeves and flaps and hoods and pockets,” Safer laughed and said, “Charles, this time you’ve finally gone too far.” Collingwood replied, “You don’t think they’ll be impressed on the barricades.” Safer managed to say, “I don’t think so,” and the coat disappeared.
Two years later, Safer left the London bureau— partly because of Collingwood. Harry Reasoner, who had been the founding co-anchor of 60 Minutes with Mike Wallace, left the network to anchor ABC’s evening newscast. 60 Minutes creator and executive producer Don Hewitt had to find a successor. He decided upon Safer, who seemed too much like Wallace, known for his hard-hitting style, and not enough like Reasoner, who could be much lighter and whimsical. But as Gates wrote, “Hewitt took a different view. He had noticed that since Safer had been working out of London, he had become more polished, almost urbane, in his on-camera persona, a subtle transformation Hewitt correctly attributed to the not-so-subtle influence of Charles Collingwood.”
Safer got the call, and continued to be a tough reporter. He looked back with special pride on his story about Lenell Geter, a Texan wrongly accused of armed robbery; Safer’s reporting, which dug up the facts of the case, won Geter’s release, a Peabody Award for Safer and 60 Minutes, and Geter an appearance on the tribute broadcast to Safer. But Safer also became known for brilliantly marrying words to visuals, and for memorable— and memorably written— reports on the last ride of the Orient Express, a Finnish tango club, and modern art.
By 1985, with Safer established as one of the star reporters in broadcast journalism, Collingwood died at age 68 of cancer. His funeral stoked controversy because at the time, CBS News was in the midst of significant changes of personnel and approach that reduced the luster earlier generations had given it. One of those eulogizing Collingwood was Safer, who announced, “It was Murrow and Charles and a few others who made the mere business enterprise of CBS into a proud and vital moving part of the American democracy. They spoke up, when others chose the ugly, prudent path of silence. And I pray we have men and women of that stern stuff today, not to honor their memory, but to honor ourselves.”
Safer’s career became one of the most distinguished in broadcast journalism. The New York Times obituary called him “one of television’s most celebrated journalists” and “suave, casual, impeccably tailored.” Charles Collingwood may have been a close friend, or may have been a mentor, but he undoubtedly would have been proud.