A Journalistic Coup Turns Sour  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   September 1997

A Journalistic Coup Turns Sour   

By Kelly Heyboer
Kelly Heyboer is a reporter at the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey.      


On the television screen, it appeared to be an enviable journalistic coup for all involved: ABC's "Nightline" airing the exclusive first look in 18 years at former Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot while little-known journalist Nate Thayer told Ted Koppel and the world how he emerged from the Cambodian jungle with the scoop of his career.

But behind the scenes, the story that made headlines around the world had dissolved into a bitter battle between Thayer and ABC over allegedly broken promises, media ethics and money.

"This is one of the most disheartening experiences of my life," says Thayer, an American covering Asia for the Far Eastern Economic Review and other publications. "It was clearly a mistake to believe people such as ABC would be honorable."

Thayer, who sold the videotape of the Pol Pot show trial he witnessed to "Nightline" for $350,000, now accuses ABC of breaking verbal agreements, stealing his story and costing him significant monetary damage for the loss of potential photo rights. "Nightline" producers say the disagreement, now in the hands of ABC's lawyers, stems from a naive Thayer underestimating the power of the Internet.

The saga began in late July when Thayer, 37, using contacts made in more than a decade of reporting in Asia, talked his way into a Khmer Rouge jungle hideout in northern Cambodia after hearing about a crisis in the core leadership of the fading Communist party that once ran the country.

Khmer Rouge agents smuggled Thayer and David McKaige, an Asiaworks cameraman, from Thailand to Cambodia. The pair, both working on a freelance basis, had requested an interview with Pol Pot, the "Killing Fields" leader believed to be responsible for more than a million deaths during the late 1970s. Because Pol Pot had not been seen by Western journalists in nearly two decades, Thayer and McKaige were unsure what to expect when Khmer Rouge agents led them to a jungle shed on July 25.

"All of the sudden, two minutes later, not only was there Pol Pot, but a mass people's tribunal that was put on for us," Thayer says.

Thayer and McKaige rushed back to Bangkok knowing they had potentially explosive material from a staged trial proving Pol Pot was not only alive, but denounced by his followers and sentenced to lifetime house arrest. By the following day, rumors of their presence at the trial were flying, and the pair say they were fielding offers from around the world for exclusives.

Elizabeth Becker, one of two journalists who conducted the last interview with Pol Pot in 1978 (when she was with the Washington Post), says that when she heard a reporter had finally seen the elusive leader, she assumed it was Thayer.

"It must have been Nate," says Becker, now the New York Times' deputy Washington editor. "He is a maniac about this story... He's just been crazed."

Holed up in a Bangkok hotel room with thousands of phone calls pouring in, Thayer says he decided to give the Far Eastern Economic Review an exclusive on the text of the story and still pictures of the trial for his regular rate of less than $3,000, even though the magazine didn't finance or assign him the story.

Meanwhile, with about five days until the magazine's next publication date, the red-hot videotape of the event was up for grabs, and a bidding war ensued.

"I was obviously hoping to get compensated for what was 14 years of my life's work. I chose 'Nightline' because I believed 'Nightline' would do the story credibly. They were not by any means the highest bidder," he says.

Koppel and "Nightline" Executive Producer Tom Bettag rushed to Bangkok and completed negotiating an agreement with Thayer for exclusive first rights to air the videotape in North America. Thayer says he was careful to insist that ABC only air the videotape, so the Far Eastern Economic Review would still have the exclusive on the full story later in the week, and so he could market the still photos he took of Pol Pot separately.

But in the days before "Nightline" aired the tape, Thayer says ABC's pre-publicity department did a frame grab on the video and handed the photos of the trial and the details of his story to papers around the country in an attempt to hype the broadcast. Before his magazine piece was even written, his "exclusive" was in papers around the world.

ABC refused Thayer's last-minute demands that "Nightline" not air the tape, because it was already scheduled and had been previewed on "World News Tonight." Without a written contract with the network, Thayer had allowed himself to get scooped.

"Nightline" executives insist Thayer's lawyers had agreed to allow ABC to feature stills from Thayer's video on its Internet site, abcnews.com , essentially giving the world free access.

"Clearly, at the center of this is, if you are going to put it on the Internet, it's going to go worldwide," says executive producer Bettag. "That's a decision he made."

Thayer denies that he agreed to allow the story on the Internet. Because Thayer's contract with "Nightline" was in the process of being finalized while the three-part broadcast aired (Thayer ultimately refused to sign it), the argument boils down to Thayer's word against that of the ABC business representative who negotiated the deal.

"We genuinely believe that we kept our word top to bottom, and we feel terrible that Nate is that angry and that upset," says Bettag.

On the heels of landing the story of his career, Thayer says he's lost faith in the profession and is disillusioned by the lengths journalists will go to land a good story.

"They wanted this story and promised us everything we asked for," he says. "As soon as they got their hands on the tape they said, 'Fuck you, deal with our lawyers.'.. There's a reason why our profession has such a bad reputation."

Bettag laments that the Pol Pot story — a great piece of journalism — might be overshadowed by a controversy over a business deal.
" 'Nightline's' feeling for Nate is one of huge respect for a journalist," Bettag says. "The business just got in the way and left a bad taste in Nate's mouth."

Thayer says he and his cameraman will not take any money from ABC until the network acknowledges that it stole his story. He has yet to collect the agreed upon $350,000 because he won't sign the contract.

"These aren't journalists. These are huge public corporations run by lawyers and public relations people," he says. "I didn't have a penny a week ago, and if I don't have a penny a week from now, I still have my integrity."

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