To millions of Americans, Morley Safer was a trusted voice in news, first as a CBS foreign correspondent who reported from Vietnam’s frontlines and then during 46 years investigating on the news magazine show 60 Minutes. For wine drinkers, Safer was a voice for wine’s health benefits who introduced the nation to the French Paradox. Safer died at his Manhattan home today at 84.
In 1991, Americans were exercising more than ever, yet heart disease remained the country’s No. 1 cause of death. And yet, over in France, where cheese and wine were plentiful, the incidence of cardiovascular disease was relatively low. On Nov. 17 that year, Safer aired a report on this “French Paradox,” highlighting research by a scientist at the University of Bordeaux, Serge Renaud.
Renaud observed that the fats consumed by the French were largely saturated fats rendered from animals, in the forms of butter and cheese, while vegetable oil accounted for a much higher percentage of the fats consumed by Americans. Additionally, Renaud hypothesized, if there is a valid link between high-fat diets and heart disease, then something else in the French lifestyle must mitigate that risk, suggesting it was their high per-capita consumption of red wine. “So the answer to the riddle, the explanation of the paradox,” Safer concluded his report, glass of red wine in hand, “may lie in this inviting glass.”
While evidence of the possible health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption had been building for years (and while subsequent research showed that red wine’s impact was not as simple as Renaud’s hypothesis), Safer’s trusted reputation made Americans sit up and take notice. Just a few years earlier, America had witnessed a growing anti-alcohol movement. In 1992, sales of red wine in the U.S. rose 39 percent.
Safer had earned America’s confidence over a lifetime of searching for the truth. He was born in Toronto, Canada, on Nov. 8, 1931. His father owned an upholstery shop. As a teen he fell in love with Ernest Hemingway’s writing and aspired to be a journalist. He dropped out of college after a few weeks to work for a newspaper.
Safer was working for the Canadian Broadcasting Company in London in 1964 when CBS hired him. Soon afterward he was sent to Vietnam, where he and a few other reporters eschewed the relative safety of Saigon for embedding with troops. A helicopter Safer was on was shot down in 1965. That same year, he showed Marines torching a village, setting off a firestorm of criticism of the war. After three years in Saigon, Safer became London bureau chief, but traveled the globe, even posing as a Canadian tourist to visit China during Mao Tse Tung’s Cultural Revolution.
In 1970, he joined 60 Minutes, a struggling show after two seasons. Together with Mike Wallace, Safer quickly grabbed attention for in-depth investigations, from a report that helped free a wrongfully convicted Texas man to an interview with Martha Stewart. He spent his vacations in France, painting and playing pétanque.
After Safer’s French Paradox report, Renaud’s work spawned a groundswell of research around the world, which has since found that moderate red wine consumption—aided by resveratrol, the antioxidant compound found in grapes and wine—may improve heart, brain, liver and kidney health, and reduce risks of cancer, diabetes, depression and vision loss.
Safer is survived by his wife of 48 years, Jane, one daughter, Sarah Bakal, her husband, Alexander Bakal, three grandchildren, a sister, and brother, both of Toronto.