DEPT OF SCOOPS
Where’s the Committee to Protect Journalists from each other?
The New Yorker
May 25, 1998
Talk of the Town
By Philip Gourevitch
A George Foster Peabody Award is the broadcasting world’s version of the Pulitzer, and until last Monday, when the fifty-seventh annual awards ceremony was held, at the Waldorf-Astoria, nobody who was honored with a Peabody had ever spurned the distinction. Then Nate Thayer came to town. Thayer is the thirty-eight-year-old Bangkok-based journalist-adventurer who, last July, obtained one of the great scoops of our time by trekking into the Cambodian jungle, attending the show trial of Pol Pot, and trekking out into Thailand with the whole bizarre spectacle on high-quality videotape. Much of that footage was promptly aired by ABC’s “Nightline” in a three-part series, which went on to win one of this year’s Peabody’s for “distinguished achievement and meritorious public service.” And Thayer went from being the first journalist to meet up with Pol Pot in nearly twenty years to being the first to turn down a Peabody.
In a letter “formally and unequivocally” rejecting his share in the award, Thayer wrote, “Ted Koppel and ‘Nightline’ literally stole my work, took credit for it, trivialized it, refused to pay me, and then attempted to bully and extort me when I complained. They should not be rewarded for this kind of behavior and I under no circumstances want my name associated with these egregious violations of basic journalistic ethics and integrity.” So last week’s gala luncheon became a split-level ceremony: upstairs, in the Waldorf’s Grand ballroom, Koppel accepted the trophy—the sixth Peabody of his career—while downstairs, in one of the Waldorf’s many saloons, Thayer pleaded his case to the barman, who set up his double scotches for free, explaining, “I like a man with principles.’
Thayer has no quarrel with the series Koppel anchored, or with the fee of three hundred and fifty thousand dollars that, a month ago, ‘Nightline” finally paid him for the use of his footage. But the deal—which he originally negotiated with Koppel over the phone—was for a one-week exclusive on North American television rights only. As Thayer understood it, that meant that he could sell the remaining world broadcast rights and the potentially lucrative still photographs from his encounter with Pol Pot, and that he retained the print-media exclusive to the story, which he had promised to his longtime employer, the far eastern Economic Review, a Hong Kong-based weekly. Thayer says that he chose to work with Koppel “because of his reputation for integrity” and yet “within twenty-four hours the pictures and the story were all over the place. ABC’s public-relations just took it over.”
Even before the first “Nightline program on Pol Pot aired, the network’s promotion teams were shipping out photographs made from Thayer’s footage, and video clips were available on the ABC web site, where anybody could simply download them. “Nightline” also allowed a writer from the Times to preview ten minutes of the footage, with the result that Thayer’s scoop—text and photographs appeared on the paper’s front page before his own article for the Review had gone to press. According to a spokeswoman for ABC, this sort of pre-broadcast publicity is normal, and the network did nothing to violate its agreement. If Thayer thinks otherwise, the spokeswoman says, “It might be that he had no idea that this is what happens when you deal with a large news organization.”
Thayer does think otherwise. “My main objection is that the industry has taken control of journalists, and part of our job is to fight for the integrity of our profession,” he said last week over more double scotches in a midtown bar. “I’ve just become incredibly disillusioned over the last year.” Sadly, Thayer’s sense of himself as something of a dinosaur is not inaccurate; in the dangerous pursuit of his stories that have made him famous, he has often needed to trust verbal agreements—even with Khmer Rouge cadres—as a matter of life or death. And nobody in the news business seems to recognize that fact better than Ted Koppel. Last October, at the same Waldorf podium where he would claim his latest Peabody award, Koppel addressed a banquet for the Committee to Protect Journalists, paying homage to reporters who risk “ death, or torture, or imprisonment” in violent places under repressive regimes, and he warned that American journalism was equally endangered.—but “more insidiously”—by “the trivialization of our industry.” He said, “We struggle to be first with the obvious…we’re afraid of the competition; afraid of earning less money; afraid of losing our audience.”
Last week, with the ghost of those words hanging in the hall, Koppel kept his Peabody acceptance speech brief. “Nate has chosen not to accept this award, because he has some profound differences with ABC news, with “Nightline”, with me. I’m sorry about that, genuinely sorry,” he said, adding, “While he rejects this award, I don’t want to reject the enormous contribution he made to bringing the world this story.”
It was odd hearing Thayer spoken of as having made a “contribution” to the story that he alone had brought out of the Cambodian Jungles. Finding Pol Pot was his biggest scoop, but for ten years, in one groundbreaking story after another, Thayer has not only chronicled Cambodia’s treacherous political history but also done a good deal to shape it. Early last month, for instance, he got word that the Khmer Rouge leaders who had purged Pol Pot, and were keeping him captive, wanted to turn the aging and sickly boss of the killing fields over to “the Americans” for trial; before an international tribunal. “But they didn’t know any Americans,” Thayer recalled. “Just me. I went back in, and spoke with them, and reported their wishes. The Voice of America’s Khmer-language service led the eight-o’clock news with the story on April 15th. Pol Pot was listening, and a few hours later he was dead.” Thayer grinned, and ran a big hand over his shiny shaved scalp, his narrow eyes seemed to brighten. “ That’s my award,” he said, and laughed. “ I killed Pol Pot.”---Philip Gourevitch