Selected Reviews and Commentary on the Journalism of Nate Thayer
Andrew Sherry, Senior Vice President, Knight Foundation, Senior V.P., Center for American Progress, Director, Online Ventures, USA Today, Regional Editor, Far Eastern Economic Review, Reporter, Agence France Press:
“Nate is simply one of the best investigative reporters of his generation. As much as I loved reporting, the highlight of my years at the Far Eastern Economic Review was editing Nate Thayer, one of the greatest investigative reporters of his generation. Nate broke the story in 1997 that Cambodia’s ex-dictator, Pol Pot, was still alive and had been purged from the Khmer Rouge. He followed up a few months later with the first interview with Pol Pot in 18 years, shedding light on how utopian leftism translated to genocide back in Cambodia. The following year, Pol Pot committed suicide after he heard Nate’s Review report, picked up by the Khmer service of VOA, that the Khmer Rouge were about to turn him over to international authorities for trial. In an era of instant communication, when scoops are matched in hours and sometimes minutes, the Pol Pot stories went unmatched for months. That’s because Nate had spent years developing contacts within the Khmer Rouge, Thai intelligence, and elsewhere to gain this access. By no means a Khmer Rouge apologist, he presented a straight, unvarnished picture of the past and present, and confronted Pol Pot with the evidence that he was a mass murderer. With journalism dominated by repackaged content, reporters spoon-feed by anonymous sources with agendas, and few publications willing to back long investigations, these stories stand as journalistic monuments I feel privileged to have helped build. The stories represent an important contribution to the historical record on Southeast Asia and on genocide.”
Alan Dawson, editor, Bangkok Post, manager of the Saigon bureau for UPI:
“In my opinion, which is shared by many colleagues, Nate is simply the best reporter to come to the Indochina scene since the fall of Saigon [in 1975].”
Gordon Crovitz, Publisher, The Wall Street Journal, Executive Vice President, Dow Jones, Editor and Publisher of the Far Eastern Economic Review:
“As Cambodia Bureau Chief for the Far Eastern Economic Review, Nate was fearless and energetic in his reporting on the country. This most famously included Nate developing rare access to the inner circle of the Khmer Rouge leadership and becoming the first foreigner to meet and photograph Pol Pot. He also bravely covered government corruption and the role of organized crime in both politics and business. He was always careful and fair in his reporting, often under the most trying of circumstances, including death threats.”
Urban Lehner, reporter, bureau chief, editor, publisher, vice president Wall Street Journal, Editor, Publisher and Executive Editor, The Asian Wall Street Journal:
“Nate Thayer’s impressive journalistic career speaks for itself and his larger-than-life, swashbuckling reputation is well-earned. During the single year I had overall editorial responsibility for the Far Eastern Economic Review as executive editor of Dow Jones in Asia , Nate as the Review’s Cambodia correspondent interviewed both Pol Pot and Ta Mok, two guys with blood on their hands who had been in hiding forever. That kind of once-in-a-lifetime work was the norm for Nate. His editors never knew where he was but they knew they could count on him for major scoops.”
Urs Boegli, International Committee of the Red Cross, head of country delegations in Angola, Sudan, Cambodia, Thailand, Bosnia & Herzegovina, the USA and at ICRC headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland:
“In my ICRC career I enjoyed working with two types of journalists. One was the smart analytical type with the rare gift of being able to communicate to the common reader the complicated things (s)he had figured out. The other one was the bold type who would go where no ICRC staff had gone before. Two great qualities, but not usually bestowed on one single individual. Nate is lucky to have them both. He can build a network of contacts and trust in the thick of the most unlikely places, e.g. the Cambodian jungle where Pol Pot was hiding AND then communicate his findings and thoughts professionally in the most respected publications such as the now dead Far Eastern Economic Review. Would professional journalism be in less of a crises if there were more guys like Nate? Probably not, but that is no reason not to wish him all the best in a profession that badly needs his lovely mix of dirty boots and clean reasoning & writing.”
Steven Solarz: former congressman, Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Asia and Pacific Affairs, and U.S. special envoy to Cambodia:
“I’ve been deeply involved in the Cambodia issue for more than 20 years, and he stands head-and-shoulders above anyone else reporting on the country.”
Robert Delfs, Beijing Bureau Chief, Tokyo Bureau Chief, Focus Editor, Far Eastern Economic Review:
“Nate Thayer is a world-class investigative journalist who has broken some of the most important stories in Asia. During the 1990s, Nate and I were colleagues (working in different parts of the region) at the Far Eastern Economic Review, where Nate stayed on as Cambodia Bureau Chief and Southeast Asia Correspondent after Dow Jones acquired ownership of the magazine. Throughout, Nate’s perceptive, in-depth, objective reporting and analysis set standards of excellence at the Review and other publications.”
Paul McCann, The London Independent:
“Nate Thayer is the kind of reporter that makes idealistic youngsters want to be journalists. He has risked his life in jungles, crossed the front lines of a civil war, been expelled from his home for exposing corrupt ministers and made secret rendezvous with genocidal killers. All for what is universally acknowledged to be the scoop of the decade – finding Pol Pot. Now his lustre has been burnished all the brighter by his refusal to kow-tow to the might of the American TV network ABC. Furthermore he has become the first person in 57 years to turn down a prestigious Peabody award because it would have been shared with what he believes is a duplicitous media monster.
Paul Wilson, Professor, Bond University, Queensland, Australia:
“Nate is one of the most original, careful and creative investigative journalists I have met in my long association with media personnel. His past work on the Cambodia was world-breaking news and he is capable of equally ground-breaking work in the future.”
David E. Miller, Foreign Service Officer, U.S. Department of State:
“I was assigned by the U.S. Information Agency as the first U.S. Embassy public affairs officer in Phnom Penh since the Indochina War; Nate was arguably the most knowledgeable and experienced foreign journalist covering the country during the time it was overseen by the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) and afterward. While we worked different sides of the fence, our personal relationship was cordial, and I like to think our our professional relationship was one of mutual respect. Nate spoke Khmer well and knew most if not all of the major political players of the day, and I learned a lot about what was going on in the parties, the palace and the field from talking with him and reading his output. He had excellent sources and good news sense, and would follow stories where none of the other members of the foreign press would or could, at times jeopardizing his personal safety. His writing was informed by a strong sense of justice and the belief that those who perpetrated the wrongs that the Cambodian people had suffered deserve to be exposed and punished. He continues to research and write about Asian topics in this vein, and I look forward to reading his latest reportage on the North Korean regime.”
Philip Gourevitch, staff writer, The New Yorker, Author:
“Nate’s the best journalist in Cambodia. Everybody over there waits for the Far Eastern Economic Review’s next piece to know what’s up. No one else is breaking those stories. There’s these two sides to Nate. There’s Nate the cowboy character, the slightly spooky, great raconteur, of whom you’re almost not sure what to believe, but most of it all turns out to be true and the exaggerations seem to be of the most small kind. And there’s Nate the hardcore investigative journalist, who takes very seriously his effort to be a writer of exposés. The two are absolutely in balance. One of the important things that Nate does, one reason he’s good, is that he has covered Cambodia not just for the outside world but also for the Phnom Penh Post. He looks at it from the point of view of the people whose news it really is, rather than from the narrow, Western-interest point of view that a lot of foreign coverage comes from.”
Karl Jackson, director of the Southeast Asian Studies program at SAIS, former member of the National Security Council, Chief of Staff, VP Dan Quayle.
“When I was with the NSC, I found Thayer’s reporting more informative and useful than the intelligence reports I read daily.”
Mary Kay Magistad, correspondent National Public Radio (NPR):
“I remember a UN official saying “I keep telling Nate that he should wake up every morning and kiss his feet, because at this rate, he’s going to wake up one day and find them gone.” To access the Cambodian guerrillas, we had to get clearance from the Thai special task force that controlled the border. Because they knew Nate, they granted him permission. A couple of days after, we got word that Nate had come out, much worse for wear. He’d been in a truck, sitting in front between two KPNLF guerrillas. The truck hit an anti-tank mine. The young men on either side of Nate were killed instantly. Those in back were thrown out–some killed, some seriously injured. Miraculously, Nate was able to walk away from it with shrapnel in his feet and what he believed was a fractured rib. Besides the trauma of being in such an accident, Nate emerged with a great story and a new cachet, certainly among the guerrillas.”
Jeremy Colson, Freelance Reporter, BBC, Bangkok:
“Nate is a world-class investigative journalist who commands the highest respect of his colleagues at home and abroad. His exceptional attention to detail and accuracy, combined with his dogged determination to get to the bottom of a story, whatever it takes, permits me to say that I have no hesitation in recommending Nate for any work or position that he may be applying for.”
“Many of the region’s greatest names in reporting made their mark in the pages of the Review, from the legendary Richard Hughes of Korean War fame, to Nate Thayer.”
Dan Boylan. “East Asia: The Last Foreign Correspondent”:
“Thayer’s stories forced world leaders to finally consider trying the murderer before international courts for crimes against humanity .Considered the decade’s biggest international scoop and the last major interview in Asia, Thayer’s meeting was Pol Pot’s first with an outsider in 18 years and ended up being the last.Thayer hunted 10-years for the story. During the quest, he trekked 700 kilometers of jungle, was hospitalized 16 times with cerebral malaria, suffered land mine injuries, and led a now mythical hunt for Cambodia’s bizarre endangered cow – the Kouprey. For the Far Eastern Economic Review weekly magazine, Thayer linked Cambodia’s key political figures to Southeast Asia’s massive heroin trade, and uncovered the last army still fighting the Vietnam War. People here say Thayer’s an inspiration. Back at the Foreign Correspondents Club they know this: They’ll tell you Thayer may have been passed over for last year’s Pulitzer Prize earlier this month, but everyone knows it was his work that brought the tragedy of Cambodia back into the world’s headlines.
Andrew Drummond, The Times of London, “Rebel Who caught Pol Pot”:
“Nate Thayer achieved every journalist’s dream when he scooped the world by meeting, and obtaining footage of, Pol Pot. How did this self-deprecating American journalist become the first Westerner to see Pol Pot in almost 20 years? Arriving in Southeast Asia in the 1980’s (with) his intimate knowledge of the rebel factions in Cambodia, Thayer had already built up many contacts among the rebel groups on the border before the UN-brokered peace deal in Cambodia in 1991. He marched with two rebel armies for months through the Cambodian jungle. Five years ago, while travelling on top of a six-wheel truck in Cambodia the passengers either side were killed when it ran over a landmine. More recently he had to pack his bags quickly and depart Phnom Penh after naming a Cambodian businessman as an international heroin trafficker. Thayer has been described as a “wild man” — an image he cultivates, with his head shaved bald. He does not mind that this leads to inevitable comparisons with Marlon Brando in the film, Apocalypse Now….Thayer has become known as a stickler for detail and he has a healthy cynicism for government authorities and non-governmental organizations alike….his knowledge is taken very seriously in journalistic and academic circles.”
The London Independent, “Your scoop? Nah. It’s ours if we want it” “’Ethics’ and ‘large media organisation’ are terms that look less and less comfortable together. Paul McCann profiles a recent conflict involving star foreign reporter Nate Thayer, Pol Pot and America’s ABC News:
“Nate Thayer is the kind of reporter that makes idealistic youngsters want to be journalists. He has risked his life in jungles, crossed the front lines of a civil war, been expelled from his home for exposing corrupt ministers and made secret rendezvous with genocidal killers. All for what is universally acknowledged to be the scoop of the decade – finding Pol Pot. Now his lustre has been burnished all the brighter by his refusal to kow-tow to the might of the American TV network ABC. Furthermore he has become the first person in 57 years to turn down a prestigious Peabody award because it would have been shared with what he believes is a duplicitous media monster. When he found the hidden Khmer leader, Thayer was described as having spent 10 years on the trail of Pol Pot. “It’s not like I had an obsession with Pol Pot. I was a Cambodian correspondent and lived there for six years. I also lived in Thailand for another five years so obviously there were plenty of other Cambodian and Asian stories that I covered. “But I had always thought that Pol Pot was one of the last great interviews in the world. Here was a household name the world over who had never explained himself. He was perhaps the most effective ‘secret leader’ of the twentieth century.”So all the time I lived in Cambodia and Thailand I kept one eye on Pol Pot. Thayer filmed two hours of Pol Pot being denounced at a classic Maoist show trial and his story was dynamite. As soon as it became known that he had footage, pictures and a story he was bombarded with hundreds of calls from news organisations. His main priority was to have the print story go in the Far Eastern Economic Review, which he had worked for as a freelancer for years and which had supported him while he tried to get to Pol Pot in the jungle. But he sold the North American television rights to his footage to ABC “Mainly because ABC’s Ted Koppel is as good as it gets on American TV. He seemed like the last honourable guy.”
But now Thayer is seriously pissed off at ABC. The network’s PR department got hold of the footage and made enhanced video-grabs which they gave to newspapers under an “ABC Exclusive” tag. This meant that, using ABC’s released material, the New York Times was able to run Thayer’s story before he had even started writing for the Economic Review. And by putting out the video grabs and downloading images onto its Web site, ABC ruined Thayer’s chances of selling the stills from his trip into the jungle. “Basically they said ‘f*** you’ to my lawyers because they knew their lawyers could eat a freelancer alive,” says Thayer. “It was an outrageous ethical violation. They then refused to pay me until I signed something saying that they had done nothing wrong. It took 10 months to get my money and they only paid up because they knew when I had won the Peabody that it would turn into a PR nightmare.” ABC claims that its pre-broadcast publicity was perfectly normal behaviour and Thayer was naive for not understanding this. Thayer believes the network’s behaviour speaks volumes about the state of US television news. “ABC has one correspondent for the whole of Asia so they take freelancers’ work and try to take credit for it. The function of people like Koppel is to prove that there is a serious side. But in reality to them the function of journalism in a free society is no more than delivering audiences to advertisers.”
The Boston Globe:
“He chews tobacco, has a five-o’clock shadow, and knows his weapons. Nate Thayer is a swashbuckling reporter who has a reputation for landing himself in the middle of the action — and at the center of his stories. At 37, Thayer already had a long list of foreign adventures on his resume when he became known around the world as the guy who saw Pol Pot…And no one who knows Thayer was surprised that he was the one who landed the big story. “Only one reporter — Nate — could have gotten that story,” said Frederick Brown, associate director of the Southeast Asia Studies School at Johns Hopkins University. Thayer was a research associate at the school’s Advanced International Studies program, having received a grant from the US Institute of Peace, a Washington-based think tank….. “He has that ability to conduct three or four conversations at the same time, from all over the world. He’s always got a phone buzzing,” said Brown. Interviews with Thayer’s colleagues yield a portrait of a man who has risked his life for his passion abroad. He is a distance swimmer who used to compete in races in Boston, and now wins river races in Cambodia. He has battled several illnesses while traveling, including malaria and typhoid disease. He collects guns, and has written for Soldier of Fortune, a magazine for military buffs. And he has always had a taste for adventure. He lost the hearing in one of his ears while covering a firefight in Burma, and had a brush with death from a landmine in Khmer Rouge territory.
Leah Melnick, photographer:
“We were the first journalists to cross the battle lines from the government to the rebel side. Nate was malarial at the time, weak and feverish, and spitting large wads of tobacco out the window, which somehow always managed to fly back in the car. His luggage consisted of a plastic bag with three cans of Camembert cheese, a towel, and a T-shirt–this for a trip that could have been up to a month. We set out from Phnom Penh in one of these Russian jeeps, which have the unique propensity for losing large pieces of their machinery every time you hit a bump. By the time we pulled up to where we were to cross over to areas held by the resistance, the steering wheel literally fell off in his lap. Things got kind of hairy as we were crossing the line. The government soldiers were a bunch of your typical 12-year-old kids, with very large automatic weapons and blank looks in their eyes. They seemed to know we were coming, and when they stopped us there was some extremely strange vibe. We went ahead and made it to the other side, where the resistance leader there met us. He looked very worried. He said, ‘I can’t believe you made it. We had received information by monitoring the radio that [government troops] were going to ambush and kill you. We later heard the same report from worried United Nations officials, and concluded that we’d had a narrow escape. Some of Nate’s reporting had angered the government, and apparently someone had seen an opportunity to rid the country of a pest. Nate did what good journalists do–you get your story firsthand, which means you talk to people, and you travel to where they live. When you cover a war, you have to do it from behind somebody’s frontlines, which means you accept their protection. That’s just how it is. Anyone who tells you that it’s different is completely full of crap. That’s the typical sort of purist attitude that people who don’t live in war zones tend to adopt. I think that Nate’s perspective on the Khmer Rouge and what that organization is now is incredibly unique and privileged, and very important. He’s one of the few people who understands that organization.”
Dale Keiger, Johns Hopkins Magazine, “In Search of Brother Number One:
“After years spent tracking the elusive Pol Pot, journalist Nate Thayer emerged from the Cambodian jungle last summer with a scoop heard ’round the world. The 37-year-old reporter stood out at SAIS, which tends to be a sober, earnest place, populated by buttoned-down foreign policy experts and students who want to be the next Zbigniew Brzezinski, not the next Hunter S. Thompson. Thayer shaved his head. He preferred T-shirts to jacket-and-tie. He wedged tobacco up under his lip, and didn’t mind being taken for a daring, hard-living foreign correspondent. He was on leave from Cambodia for a year to be a visiting fellow at the SAIS Foreign Policy Institute. Thayer returned to Cambodia from SAIS, and six weeks later, he emerged from the jungle with the news that he had, indeed, gotten to Pol Pot. The Khmer Rouge had slipped him in to witness a choreographed public denunciation of the former dictator. Thayer had quite a story, and for a few weeks last summer, he was the most famous journalist in the world.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen responds, in a public letter to Far Eastern Economic Review article by Nate Thayer based on an interview with King Sihanouk in exile at his Palace in Beijing, China entitled “Cambodia – Last Act”:
I was forced by the current situation to write this letter. On the evening of June 17, 1994, I was deeply shaken by the article published in the Far Eastern Economic Review of June 23, 1994 entitled “Cambodia – Last act” written by Nate Thayer supposedly an interview with Your Majesty. According to this article, I have become another obstacle on the way of conferring the power to Your Majesty. Where is the truth? Your Majesty, I was very shaken when I read the Review’s articles which mentioned that “Sihanouk acknowledged that his bid for power would be doomed without the acquiescence of Hun Sen and the CPP because ‘I do not want to shed blood to fight a secession led by Hun Sen unless I have the assurance that Hun Sen and his party will join me in my government’”. Now people, unscrupulously greedy of power, are using this article to poison the atmosphere going so far as to tell Thai businessmen not to work with the current Government because it is about to collapse and to wait to work with the new Government. It is very funny because the Khmer story is like a kid’s game since a press article may be able to dissolve or to form a Government. This is too simple and the Constitution seems to be worthless. Everyone is boasting of pro liberal democracy but instead are violating the nation’s Constitution. What do they really want dictatorship or democracy? What I need right now is a truth whether Your Majesty really wanted to take power as the Prime Minister as it has been published in the media, so that I might assess according to the real fact. Your Majesty, I am very worried by the length of my letter and by its content. If I did not write and tell Your Majesty the truth and to seek the truth, confusion would prevail. I know very well that a number of people will accuse me of arrogance, daring to write a personal letter to His Majesty the King ….How to address the rumors surrounding the question of conferring the power to Your Majesty? I am awaiting Your Majesty’s noble advice for further action.
Signed, (Prime Minister) Hun Sen”