Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Hemingway’s Disciple and Mr. Disaster

Morley Safer just retired after a 50-year career with CBS. Miguel Almaguer has worked for NBC for seven years. They have a surprising amount in common.

morley-saferSafer dropped out of college in Canada to become a reporter, with the goal of landing a job as a foreign correspondent, an assignment he ripped from the pages of Ernest Hemingway’s writing. Safer’s worldly insights as a foreign correspondent landed him a job in television news, which led to war-time field assignments in Vietnam and Nigeria.

Almaguer left the University of California at Santa Cruz after his sophomore year, but went back to college at San Francisco State University at the suggestion of his aunt, who was the co-anchor of a TV news show. He fell in love with broadcast journalism and was hired by California TV stations to cover spot news. He hooked on with NBC in 2009.

Almaguer at OSO Washington

Miguel Almaguer reporting at scene of huge Washington mudslide

In 2004, while working for a TV station in Sacramento, Almaguer won the prestigious Edward R. Murrow Award for Spot News coverage. Safer, when he joined CBS, was assigned to Murrow’s desk.

Neither Safer nor Almaguer have spent much time at a desk in their respective broadcasting careers. Safer, who is best known as co-host of Sixty Minutes for 46 years, was constantly on assignment, as often as possible in Europe. Almaguer, who works out of Los Angeles, is NBC’s point man for covering disasters. If something explodes, floods or blows, expect to see Almaguer standing in rubble, water or stiff winds reporting it.

Safer in Vietnam

Morley Safer reporting as U.S. troops burned a Vietnamese village to punish villagers for cooperating with the Viet Cong.

Safer and Almaguer are from generations far apart, but they share a lust for news. And they aren’t afraid to face the headwinds to report it. Safer was the first U.S. journalist to report the tawdrier side of war when he filed a story about American troops burning down a small Vietnamese village to punish villagers for harboring Viet Cong soldiers. President Lyndon Johnson wanted Safer fired. CBS refused.

Safer’s interest extended far beyond war. He reported frequently about great art, clever inventions and fine wine. No less than David McCullough praised Safer’s writing, which was a combination of first-hand observation conveyed in sparse, masculine Hemingway prose. Mike Wallace, Safer’s long-time co-host and frenemy, called his writing “gorgeous.”


Miguel Almaguer standing in a waist-high mudflow during Los Angeles flooding. Crews had to rescue him from the mud.

Almaguer’s reporting style stresses the urgency of the disasters he covers. He looks for different angles on disaster that give viewers a more authentic feel for the damage, anxiety and death they deliver. At times, he literally seems in the middle of the storm. Almaguer recently had to be extracted from a waist-high mudflow where he was reporting on a flood. His boots didn’t make it.

Safer had a tidy travel budget to cover far-flung stories. Almaguer must have a lifetime of loyalty flight miles as he hustles to wherever disaster rains down. Luckily, there is a lot of disaster in Southern California, so sometimes his coverage only involves a day trip.

You could say Safer and Almaguer are accidental broadcast journalists. They didn’t dream about wading in rice paddies or standing alongside an earthquake-crumpled building. But when they got a taste of unvarnished breaking news, they couldn’t get enough. Their viewers couldn’t either.

The career trajectories of Safer and Almaguer will never be identical, but they both represent what’s good about broadcast journalism. They are committed, well spoken and fearless. They bring more skill and sophistication to stories they cover than the mere ability to show up with a microphone and a cameraman.

Journalists who can stare disaster in the face and utter a few brilliantly selected words are invaluable and in scarce supply. Safer gave us more than 1,000 great stories. Almaguer has a long career left to leave a similar legacy.





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