Safer was born to an Austrian Jewish
family in Toronto, Ontario, the son of Anna (née Cohn) and Max Safer, an
upholsterer. He attended Harbord Collegiate Institute, and briefly
attended University of Western Ontario.
Safer began his journalism career as a reporter for various newspapers
in Canada (Woodstock Sentinel Review, London Free Press and Toronto
Telegram) and England (Reuters and Oxford Mail). Later, he joined the
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as a correspondent and producer.
In 1964, Safer joined CBS News as a London-based correspondent. In 1965,
he opened the CBS News bureau in Saigon. That year he followed a group
of United States Marines to the village of Cam Ne, for what was
described as a "search and destroy" mission. When the Marines arrived,
they gave orders in English to the inhabitants—by all accounts harmless
civilians—to evacuate the village. When the homes were cleared, the
Marines burned their thatched roofs with flamethrowers and Zippo
lighters. Safer's report on this event was broadcast on CBS News on
August 5, 1965, and was among the first reports to paint a bleak picture
of the Vietnam War. President Lyndon Baines Johnson reacted to this
report angrily, calling CBS's president and accusing Safer and his
colleagues of having "shat on the American flag." Certain that Safer was
a communist, Johnson also ordered a security check; upon being told that
Safer "wasn't a communist, just a Canadian," he responded "Well, I knew
he wasn't an American."
In 1967, Safer was named the London bureau chief, a post he held for
three years. In 1970, he left London to replace Harry Reasoner on 60
Minutes, after Reasoner left to anchor the ABC Evening News (although
Reasoner would return to 60 Minutes in 1978, alongside Safer). Safer has
been on the program since that time.
is also the author of the bestselling book, Flashbacks: On Returning to
Vietnam. It describes his 1989 return to Vietnam and features his
interviews with known and less-well-known Vietnamese people, most of
them veterans of the war. These included general Vo Nguyen Giap, Duong
Quynh Hoa, Pham Xuan An, major Nguyen Be, and others. He also visited
the Caravelle Hotel, the Marble Mountains & air field, China Beach, Hue,
Quang Tri City, a Cham museum, and old Wrecking yard full of American
artefacts, and several other locations. The book also contains
reflections on Bill Moyers (regarding the Cam Ne affair), Barry
Goldwater, and general William Westmoreland. His trip was the basis
of a 60 minutes show in 1989, which Safer said got a reaction of
annoyance from some veterans, and a positive reaction from others.
He and his wife, the former Jane Fearer, live in New York City. They
have a daughter, Sarah Alice Anne Safer, who is a graduate of Brown
University and freelance journalist. Due to personal preference,
Safer is still a Canadian citizen, and thus maintains dual citizenship.