Raasch: What Morley Safer’s journalism teaches us – STLtoday.com
WASHINGTONÂ â¢ Morley Safer was accidentally famous.Â
He was a great reporter because he got his hands dirty down where a story begins, reporting from the battlefields of Vietnam to the high palaces of Europe.
For six decades in journalism, spanning Ike to Obama, his work flowed from an awareness that the important thing was the storyÂ â not Morley Safer.
Thatâs not saying he wasnât without ego. Most people in media are no shrinking violets. But his journalism was the tell. He reported, then he talked. It came as an affirmation that journalism only has value in the newness and relevancy it communicates, not in the fame and celebrity of those communicating it.
One is life, the other show biz.
Safer, who died Thursday, famously once said: “There is no such thing as the common man; if there were, there would be no need for journalists.”
Itâs a great lesson for the self-branding crowd that is overrunning television news and conflating personal interest with the public interest.
Itâs ironic that Safer died just days after announcing his retirement from CBSâs â60 Minutes,â a staple of TV news that, more than any other, defined and refined the craft of investigative journalism. The weekly broadcast made video cool before the days of viral vacuity; it made investigative journalism powerful and universally relevant before Watergate. Conservative and liberal alike could view the latest expose on â60 minutesâ and get equally irked at the injustices or illegalities exposed.
Itâs also ironic that Safer died just days after the much-hyped dÃ©tente, the prime-time interview between Megyn Kelly, a Fox News host, and Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee who spent a good deal of the primary season attacking Kelly with a thousand Twitter cuts.
Kelly had upset Trump by opening the debate season last year with a question he didnât like. Right out of the gate she had asked Trump, an aspirant for the most powerful job in the world, to explain crass and sexist statements about women that he had made, in public, in the past. He then spent months ripping into her on Twitter and in the constant stream of call-in interviews that many news networks gifted him with over the campaign.
Some of the crass comments about women that Kelly had asked Trump about were made on the ârealityâ TV show that made Trump quite famous, and also made him millions of dollars.
Since temperament is a part of how Americans judge their presidents, it was a perfectly legitimate question for Kelly to ask. The fact that Trump instead decided to attack the questioner, over months, says much about how he might act when the questions in the Oval Office arenât so nice. So, even if it caused her distress, Kelly performed a service with that question by exposing how Trump âcounterpunches,â in his own words, when confronted with legitimate questions about his character.
Here is where the legacy of Morley Safer and the journalism of Megyn Kelly diverge.
Safer might have asked the same question of Trump if given the big-stage opportunity of a presidential debate. But it wouldnât have been important for Safer to “make up” with Trump. What Trump thought of Safer, and vice versa, would have been irrelevant as long as the journalism had been accurate and comprehensive.
For Fox, it was essential to have Kelly and Trump circle back to speaking terms on the big stage, to get over what Trump called âour little difficulty.â Kelly is the face of prime-time for the network, Trump is its uber-star guest. It wouldnât look right for the face of Fox prime time to not be on speaking terms with the superstar candidate who has many other Fox hosts on speed dial, especially now that the presumptive Republican nominee will be on TV screens everywhere from now until at least November.
The contest for eyeballs, which feeds directly to the bottom line in an election year, has become paramount. Conflict sells, but only if the big names are on speaking terms.
The story bowed to the story tellers.
So Kelly, who can be a tough and fair questioner, spent the opening part of 14 minutes of prime-time asking Trump if he had been bullied as a child and inquiring what he had learned about love and relationships from two divorces. Questions that, in a Barbara Walters way, might have engendered insight if Trump did not struggle so mightily with introspection. That was a valuable revelation.
Then Kelly asked whether journalists should be âniceâ to presidential candidatesÂ â a question never assembled in Morley Saferâs vocabulary. Kelly speculated on what Trump might have been wearing when he Tweeted nasty things about her.
âIâm picturing a crushed velvet smoking jacket,â Kelly said.
Then, right down to the nub of the hype â to why Trump and Kelly couldnât get along for nine months. To why they were back together. To the great rapprochement.
âLetâs talk about us,â Kelly said.
And they did.