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`Minutes' man still punching the clock

April 03, 2006|David Bauder | Associated Press

NEW YORK — "Mind if I smoke?" Morley Safer asks as he gets up to close his office door at "60 Minutes."

Not at all. It's a rhetorical question anyway, with his cigarette already halfway done. Besides, it feels appropriately old school, given Safer's link to the days when legends -- as well as smoke -- filled the hallways of CBS News.

Mike Wallace's imminent retirement as a regular "60 Minutes" contributor will leave Safer, who joined the broadcast in 1970, as its senior correspondent.

He plans to hang on to that designation for a while.

"Retirement is such an awful word," he said, his face registering distaste. "The only reason I would leave this job would be to do something else I wanted to do more than what I'm doing."

He hasn't found anything yet. The 74-year-old Safer appreciates his perch on television's top newsmagazine. It allows him the freedom to pursue a variety of stories, illustrated by two of the pieces he's currently working on, about Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert, and the international trade in stolen relics.

During the last few years, Safer has also become a regular on "Sunday Morning," reporting on the art world.

"He and Wallace both mean so much," said Jeff Fager, executive producer of "60 Minutes." "Their faces, their voices, their styles, their abilities are so entwined with everything we do. They're very important to the legacy and very important to maintaining the quality that people expect."

Safer's cluttered office is stuffed with books and knickknacks from a CBS News career that began in 1964. There's a gold bust of Robert F. Kennedy, his award for a 2001 story about a school for the homeless. His favorite "60 Minutes" story was a 1983 piece that resulted in the release of a Texas man wrongfully sentenced to life in prison.

"How can you not be pleased with that kind of work?" he said. "As they say, if you've saved one life, you've saved the world."

He watches war coverage with some regret. He'd like to go to Iraq but knows his knees can't take it. Safer's 1965 story showing U.S. Marines burning a village in Vietnam was one small factor in the public disillusionment over that war.

"Compared with what reporters face in this one, Vietnam was a piece of cake to cover," he said. "You can barely leave your room in Iraq. I feel for the frustration that they must feel -- just not being able to cover the story. It's very, very difficult."

CBS News routinely aired hourlong, prime-time documentaries about the Vietnam War, a notion that seems as foreign today as a prime-time western.

The biggest change he's witnessed at CBS is the end of any notion that broadcasting is a public service. CBS founder William Paley told him that if viewers couldn't trust the network's news division, they wouldn't trust anything on the air, he said.

"It's not that I think we don't do a damn good job of public service," he said. "I think we do. But I'm talking at the very top."

Safer's a big fan of Bob Schieffer, 69, who he said is anchoring the "CBS Evening News" in the best tradition of Walter Cronkite.

"I'd love to see him stick around for more than a little while," he said. "My God, he's a kid. He's not even 70 yet. The fact is, people are living longer and keeping their marbles longer, so what's the big deal? I think Schieffer should use Wallace as an exemplar."

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