Remembering 60 Minutes' Ed Bradley

CBS News' Ed Bradley, a giant of journalism who inspired a generation of reporters, died 10 years ago today

On the 10th anniversary of Ed Bradley’s death, the only way to celebrate one of America’s most legendary journalists is to relish the extraordinary stories he brought to life-- in the elegant way that only he could.

Bradley first appeared on 60 Minutes in 1979 with a story about Southeast Asian refugees known as “boat people,” some of whom he helped ashore in memorable scenes from his report. Bradley was hired by 60 Minutes in 1981 and went on to report more than 500 stories over the course of an impressive 25-year career. He interviewed crooks, murderers, and titans of film and music, maintaining an effortless cool through it all.

But what stood out, as Bradley weeded through both the bright and sinister pockets of the world, was his pursuit of truth and the essential humanity at the core of some of the world’s most famous, and infamous, people.

“Many themes coursed through the life of Ed Bradley: justice, justice served and justice denied,” said Morley Safer, Bradley’s now deceased longtime colleague and friend. Safer was part of a group of 60 Minutes journalists who produced the tribute to Bradley that ran the Sunday after his death from a rare form of leukemia in 2006.

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Ed Bradley, 1991

CBS News

That special report, an excerpt of which is viewable in the video player above, showcased Bradley’s dexterity as an interviewer. He brought out the hidden character of villains, like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, and major figures in sports and entertainment, like Lena Horne, Bob Dylan and Michael Jordan.

Through it all, Bradley maintained his signature style: confident and streetwise. His facial expressions of puzzlement and disbelief could compel interview subjects to make remarkable on-camera confessions.

“Bradley on-camera was the same Bradley off-camera, but he did have a playbook of body language that accompanied every interview,” Safer recalled. “The dubious sage, get-to-the-point, and puzzled disbelief.”

His most gripping stories were the ones that explored the darker aspects of the human condition.

“Ed could not resist the call of the great stories. And most of the great stories are about killing and dying in the dusty and forlorn ends of the earth,” Safer said. “In Kosovo and Somalia, death by famine and death through neglect, indifference and ignorance.”

Overseas, Bradley reported stories of war and trauma. Back home, he dug into discrimination and failures of the criminal justice system, most memorably in his 2004 story on the murder of Emmett Till, which brought the case back into the national conversation.

Bradley used his platform as a voice for the powerless. Safer described his stories as “the bread and butter of 60 Minutes: stories of outrage against the poor, industrial and official criminality and disregard of human life.” Indeed, the 60 Minutes archive is rich with moments that revealed his compassion.

In one tender exchange captured on camera, he comforts a young black child who is worried that he won’t “know enough words” to understand college, telling him that he’ll “be OK.”

But as Safer tells it, there is perhaps no better 60 Minutes piece that captures Bradley’s love of life than his 1996 interview with Muhammad Ali, then struggling with Parkinson’s disease.

With the help of his wife Lonnie, Ali played a prank on Bradley at lunch, falling “asleep” at the table as Lonnie explains that Ali sometimes throws punches in his sleep. Bradley fell for the ruse and Ali surprised his interviewer with a mock jab. Bradley collapses into a fit of laughter-- and it’s infectious.

“He was the genuine article,” said Safer.