A Lifetime of Lessons: Morley Safer’s Legacy for Business Leaders

1. Resist pressure to back down from a position or abandon a decision you know is the right one—regardless of the consequences. Just after opening CBS News’ Saigon bureau in 1965, Morley Safer was invited to join a group of Marines on what a lieutenant had told him would be a “search-and-destroy” mission in the tiny villages that made up an area called Cam Ne. But what he encountered there—and decided to capture on film in a news broadcast—“was the spectacle of American soldiers employing their Zippo lighters to burn the thatched-roof, mud-plastered huts to the ground, despite having met with no resistance from village residents,” The New York Times reported.

Safer’s exposé, which is widely acknowledged to have changed Americans’ view of the war in Vietnam, “ignited a firestorm,” the Times said. According to the newspaper, President Lyndon Johnson “gave CBS President Frank Stanton a tongue-lashing” about the report, noting that Safer and his colleagues had, in making it, “shat on the American flag” and demanded that Safer be fired. Johnson also intimated that Safer had “communist ties” and had fabricated the entire story.

“Don’t be afraid to ask controversial questions if the answers may lead to a better result.”

Safer wrote in his 1990 memoir, Flashbacks: On Returning to Vietnam that “The Cam Ne story was broadcast over and over again in the United States and overseas,” the Times said. “It was seized upon by Hanoi as a propaganda tool and by scoundrels of the left and right, in the Pentagon and on campuses.” Although he feared retribution from American soldiers, the Times stated, Safer never wavered from his position on the veracity of the broadcast—even as he endured an investigation of his alleged communist connections (he was eventually cleared).

2. Question what you’re told is the truth, if it doesn’t ring true. In 1983, Lenell Geter, a 25-year-old black aerospace engineer, was sentenced to life in prison for robbing a KFC restaurant in Greenville, Texas in August 1982. Safer didn’t believe the evidence in the case added up; such evidence included a color photograph from which two witnesses had allegedly identified Geter as the KFC perpetrator—but that did not exist. As part of an investigative report on the case, Safer approached both witnesses with two black-and-white photographs of Geter—and neither could identify him as the suspect. Safer’s report, which won three broadcast journalism awards, was instrumental in Geter’s exoneration and subsequent release from prison, vox.com said.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask controversial questions if the answers may lead to a better result. Safer had no problem crafting better stories by being provocative or controversial with his interview subjects. For instance, in what cbsnews.com described as one of his “most memorable” interviews, Safer asked Ruth Madoff, wife of convicted Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff, how she could not have known about her husband’s nefarious activities. In another interview, he asked Anna Wintour, the notoriously difficult editor of Vogue magazine, whether she would characterize herself as a “bitch.”

4. Avoid defining yourself by your career alone. Rather than allow his job to consume him and sap his creative juices, Safer had “a full and rich life outside of 60 Minutes,” Steven Reiner, an associate professor at Stony Brook University, told nextavenue.org, the website of Twin Cities Public Television.  Reiner, who worked with Safer on many 60 Minutes stories between 1996 and 2006, said Safer was a “wonderful artist” who worked with pen-and-ink and “had a lot of passions—racecar driving in the country,” for starters. According to The New York Times, a gallery in New York City held a retrospective of Safer’s artwork in 1980; Safer also “baked pies and cakes (but swore he did not eat them) and played petanque,” a French version of bocce.

“I don’t think 60 Minutes ever became his identity per se the way it was for others,” all of whom he outlasted in his tenure with the program, Reiner observed on nextavenue.org.

Safer was a man of strength, integrity and character. There is much CEOs can glean from his experiences and his personality that can be incorporated into their own day-to-day management style.

 

 

 

Julie Ritzer Ross :Julie Ritzer Ross has been covering all facets of business in a variety of vertical markets, including manufacturing, for the past 35 years and the use of technology in business for the past 25 years. A two-time winner of a Jesse H. Neal Award for business-to-business journalism, her work has appeared in such publications as MICROSOFT EXECUTIVE CIRCLE, CONSUMER GOODS TECHNOLOGY (formerly CONSUMER GOODS MANUFACTURER), VERTICAL SYSTEMS RESELLER, RESELLER MANAGEMENT, RIS NEWS, and INTEGRATED SOLUTIONS.