New York Sun
Legendary Reporter Gets His Due
By GARY SHAPIRO | March 15, 2005
Among a certain stratum of journalistic cognoscenti, mutters of satisfaction are being heard at the Shorenstein Award for Journalism given to Nayan Chanda. The director of publications for the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization and editor of Yale-Global Online is not exactly a household name, but there are those - including the editor of The New York Sun - who have been overheard to remark that Mr. Chanda is one of the dozen or so greatest reporters of his generation.
The son of a schoolteacher from Calcutta, Mr. Chanda did his graduate studies at the Sorbonne, where he met a brilliant and beautiful woman named Geetanjali Singh, who was from New Delhi and who would become his wife. Mr. Chanda went to work in 1970 for the Far Eastern Economic Review, where he covered Vietnam and wrote about the war that defined his generation with a comprehensiveness matched by few, if any, others.
It was Mr. Chanda who broke to the world the news that North Vietnamese armor had taken the presidential palace in South Vietnam. It seems that Mr. Chanda was alone in the Reuters bureau, seated with his feet on a desk and looking onto a street called Thong Nhat, or Reunification Boulevard, when he saw the nose of a tank come into view. Then he saw the body of the tank slide past, then the rear of the tank, then the antenna, and then a flag hanging off of it. Realizing that the flag was that of the communists, Mr. Chanda leapt to his feet, grabbed a camera, and dashed out the door in time to see the tank crash into the gates of the palace as a guard scrambled out of the way. Mr. Chanda raced back into the Reuters office and was tapping out a dispatch onto a live teletype that the palace had been taken when all the lines went down. But he had gotten out the scoop that hundreds of journalists had wondered who would write.
One of the things that marked Mr. Chanda's reporting on Vietnam was that he not only covered the story for years before free Vietnam fell but also stayed with it for years afterward, to bring in scoop after scoop on a second phase of the war, the one in which communists fought communists or, to put it geopolitically, the Soviet-backed regime in Vietnam battled the Red Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. It was Mr. Chanda who broke the story of the massacres of Vietnamese by Cambodian communists that triggered the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, which forced the Khmer Rouge back into the jungles.
Mr. Chanda rose to become the editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, owned by Dow Jones and Company. From Hong Kong in 1998, Mr. Chanda was directing a correspondent named Nate Thayer, when the intrepid, tobacco chewing American reached Mr. Chanda, via a battery-operated satellite phone from Siem Reap, Cambodia, to let the editor know how he planned to maneuver through that dangerous land on his way to find the Red-Chinese-backed mass murderer known as Pol Pot.
Mr. Chanda was concerned that Mr. Thayer would be mistaken for a combatant and get arrested, or killed. So he ordered Mr. Thayer, perfunctorily, to change his plan, only to hear, "Nayan, sorry, but my battery's going dead ..." Or something to that effect. Days later, Mr. Chanda released to the world Mr. Thayer's now-famous interview with a Pol Pot who was much reduced and only six months away from death.
One of the shrewdest operators in journalism, Mr. Chanda was once in a hotel room in Beijing when - 30 minutes before deadline - he was asked by an editor in Hong Kong to put a question to the exiled Cambodian monarch, Prince Sihanouk. Mr. Chanda did not know where the mercurial French-speaking prince was, but he had a hunch he was in North Korea. So he picked up the bedside phone in his hotel and said to the hotel operator, "Pyongyang." The next word Mr. Chanda heard was, "Pyongyang." Mr. Chanda said: "Si-hanouk." The next word he heard was, "bonjour."
Sometime before that, Mr. Chanda himself was in Pyongyang and used ordinary mail to send word to a friend of what it was like there. The date was 1981, which Mr. Chanda noted carefully on a postcard and then wrote, under it, "I haven't seen any animal farm yet but can see this country is three years ahead of everybody else."
The Shorenstein Award is given every two years and is presented jointly by the Walter H. Shorenstein Forum for Asia Pacific Studies at Stanford University and the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. The award honors a journalist not only for an outstanding body of work, but also for the way that work has helped Americans understand Asia. Previous winners have included Stanley Karnow, who wrote a seminal history of the Vietnam war, and Don Oberdorfer of the Washington Post, as well as Orville Schell.
An agent of the Knickerbocker caught up with Mr. Chanda at a small dinner at a club in Midtown Manhattan and learned that the Web site that Mr. Chanda edits has a rapidly growing readership and is disproving the notion that the World Wide Web is more buzz than substance. He shows no sign at all of slowing down and reports that he is currently writing a book on the history of globalization - though he promised the Knick that he would not use that word on the cover.