Nate Thayer (born April 21, 1960) is a freelance journalist, whose journalism has focused on international organized crime, narcotics trafficking, human rights, and areas of military conflict. He is notable for having interviewed Pol Pot, in his capacity as Cambodia correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review.
Publications, honors and awards
Thayer has written for Jane's Defence Weekly, Soldier of Fortune, Associated Press and for more than 40 other publications, including The Cambodia Daily and The Phnom Penh Post. Thayer’s reporting earned him the 1998 Francis Frost Wood Award for Courage in Journalism, given by Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York to a journalist "judged to best exemplify physical or moral courage in the practice of his or her craft." He was a visiting scholar at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University as well as the first recipient of the Center for Public Integrity's ICIJ (International Consortium of Investigative Journalists) Award for Outstanding International Investigative Reporting in November, 1998. Upon awarding Thayer the ICIJ Award, the judges noted:
- "He illuminated a page of history that would have been lost to the world had he not spent years in the Cambodian jungle, in a truly extraordinary quest for first-hand knowledge of the Khmer Rouge and their murderous leader. His investigations of the Cambodian political world required not only great risk and physical hardship but also mastery of an ever-changing cast of factional characters."
According to Vaudine England of the BBC, "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, the journalist who found Cambodia's Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot."
Thayer was also the first person in 57 years to turn down a prestigious Peabody Award, because he did not want to share it with ABC News' Nightline whom he believed stole his story and deprived him and the Far Eastern Economic Review of income.
Since 1999 Hofstra University's Department of Journalism and Mass Media Studies in the School of Communication has awarded the Nate Thayer Scholarship to a qualified student with the best foreign story idea. Winners are selected on the basis of scholastic achievement or potential as well as economic need.
Thayer was born in 1960 in Massachusetts, the son of Harry E. T. Thayer who was United States Ambassador to Singapore from 1980 to 1985. He studied at the University of Massachusetts Boston. From 1980 to 1982 he was involved with the Boston-based Clamshell Alliance, acting as spokesman during protest events at the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant as well as anti-draft protests.
He began his career in Southeast Asia on the Thai-Cambodian border, taking part in an academic research project in which he interviewed 50 Cham survivors of Khmer Rouge atrocities at Nong Samet Refugee Camp in 1984. He then returned to Massachusetts where he worked briefly as the Transportation Director for the state Office of Handicapped Affairs. Thayer himself noted, "I got fired. I was a really bad bureaucrat."
He later worked for Soldier of Fortune magazine reporting on guerrilla combat in Burma, and in 1989 he began reporting for the Associated Press from the Thai-Cambodian border. In October 1989 he was nearly killed when an anti-tank mine exploded under a truck he was riding in. In 1991 he moved to Cambodia where he began writing for the Far Eastern Economic Review.
In August 1992 Thayer traveled to Mondulkiri Province and visited the last of the FULRO Montagnard guerrillas who had remained loyal to their former American commanders. Thayer informed the group that FULRO's president Y Bham Enuol had been executed by the Khmer Rouge seventeen years previously. The FULRO troops surrendered their weapons in October 1992; many of this group were given asylum in the United States.
In April 1994 Thayer participated in (and funded) the Cambodian Kouprey Research Project, a $30,000, two-week, 150 km field survey to find the rare Cambodian bovine known as the kouprey. Thayer later wrote: "After compiling a team of expert jungle trackers, scientists, security troops, elephant mahouts and one of the most motley and ridiculous looking groups of armed journalists in recent memory, we marched cluelessly into Khmer Rouge-controlled jungles along the old Ho Chi Minh trail."
On July 3, 1994 Thayer was asked help negotiate Prince Norodom Chakrapong's release and safe passage to the airport after the prince had been accused by Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh of plotting a coup d'état. Thayer was subsequently expelled from Cambodia by Prince Ranariddh, but he returned anyway.
In early 1997 he was again expelled from Cambodia for exposing connections between Prime Minister Hun Sen and heroin traffickers. Thayer then decided to pursue a fellowship at Johns Hopkins University.
Thayer at Pol Pot's Trial
Nate Thayer became world-famous in July 1997 when he and Asiaworks Television cameraman David McKaige managed to visit the Anlong Veng Khmer Rouge jungle camp inside Cambodia where Pol Pot was being tried for treason. Thayer had hoped for an interview but was disappointed:
- "Pol Pot said nothing. They made it clear and I believed them, that I was to interview Pol Pot after the trial. Pol Pot literally had to be carried away from the trial—he was unable to walk—and I was not able to talk to him. I did try to talk to him... he did not answer any questions, and he did not speak during the trial. "
Thayer noted, "Every ounce of his being was struggling to maintain some last vestige of dignity."
Thayer believed that the trial had been staged by the Khmer Rouge for him and McKaige:
- "It was put on specifically for us, to take the message to the world that Pol Pot has been denounced. They had reported on their radio, on June 19, that Pol Pot had been purged. No one believed them. After five years of lying over their radio, there was no reason anyone should take what they say credibly. It was clear to them that they needed an independent, credible witness to show what was happening."
According to Thayer, Ted Koppel of ABC News made a verbal agreement with Thayer to use footage from the trial on Nightline, then violated that agreement:
- "[Koppel] returned home with a copy of my videotape. I gave it to him in exchange for his strict promise that its only use would be on Nightline. However, once he had the copy of the tape, ABC News released video, still pictures, and even transcripts of my interviews to news organizations throughout the world. Protected by its formidable legal and public relations department, ABC News made still photographs from the video, slapped the “ABC News Exclusive” logo on them, and hand delivered them to newspapers, wire services, and television...All of these pictures demanded that photo credit be given to ABC News... The story won a British Press Award for “Scoop of the Year” for a British paper I didn’t even know had published it...I even won a Peabody Award as a “correspondent for Nightline." But I turned it down—-the first time anyone had rejected a Peabody in its 57-year history."
ABC News responded that they had "agreed to pay Nate Thayer the sizable sum of $350,000 for the rights to use his footage of former Cambodian dictator Pol Pot. Despite the fact that ABC provided prominent and repeated credit and generous remuneration for his work, Mr. Thayer initiated a five-year barrage of complaints coupled with repeated demands for more money." In 2002 Thayer sued Koppel and ABC News for $30 million in punitive damages and unspecified compensatory damages.
Interview with Pol Pot
In October 1997, Thayer returned to Anlong Veng and became only the second western journalist (after Elizabeth Becker in 1978) ever to be granted an interview with the former dictator and, along with McKaige, was certainly the last outsider to see him alive. Thayer recounted the story of his interview with Pol Pot in his unpublished book Sympathy for the Devil: Living Dangerously in Cambodia – A Foreign Correspondent's Story. Pol Pot told Thayer:
- "First, I want to let you know that I came to join the revolution, not to kill the Cambodian people. Look at me now. Do you think ... am I a violent person? No. So, as far as my conscience and my mission were concerned, there was no problem. This needs to be clarified...My experience was the same as that of my movement. We were new and inexperienced and events kept occurring one after the other which we had to deal with. In doing that, we made mistakes as I told you. I admit it now and I admitted it in the notes I have written. Whoever wishes to blame or attack me is entitled to do so. I regret I didn't have enough experience to totally control the movement. On the other hand, with our constant struggle, this had to be done together with others in the communist world to stop Kampuchea becoming Vietnamese. For the love of the nation and the people it was the right thing to do but in the course of our actions we made mistakes."
Thayer and the death of Pol Pot
Thayer visited Anlong Veng again on April 16, 1998, only a day after Pol Pot had died. After photographing the corpse he briefly interviewed Ta Mok and Pol Pot's second wife Muon, who told Thayer, "What I would like the world to know is that he was a good man, a patriot, a good father." Thayer was then asked to transport Pol Pot's body in his pickup truck to the site a short distance away where it was later cremated.
Thayer later speculated that Pol Pot committed suicide because of his belief that the Khmer Rouge were planning to "hand him over to the Americans".
Interview with Kang Kek Iew
In April 1999 Thayer, alongside photojournalist Nic Dunlop, interviewed Kang Kek Iew (Comrade Duch) for the Far Eastern Economic Review after Dunlop had tracked Duch to Samlaut and suspected strongly that he was the former director of the notorious S-21 security prison. Dunlop wanted Duch to provide clues that would reveal his identity, and Thayer began probing Duch's story that he was Hang Pin, an aid worker and a born-again Christian:
- "Then Nate said, 'I believe that you also worked with the security services during the Khmer Rouge Period?' Duch appeared startled and avoided our eyes...Again Nate put the question to him...He looked unsettled and his eyes darted about...He then glanced at Nate's business card...'I believe, Nic, that your friend has interviewed Monsieur Ta Mok and Monsieur Pol Pot?'...He sat back down...and inhaled deeply. 'It is God's will that you are here,' he said."
Duch surrendered to the authorities in Phnom Penh following the publication of this interview. Dunlop and Thayer were first runners-up for the 1999 SAIS-Novartis Prize for Excellence in International Journalism, presented by The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, for "exposing the inside story of the Khmer Rouge killing machine."
Nate Thayer has also covered Albania, Indonesia, Mongolia and the Philippines. In 2003 he reported on the Iraq War in a five-part series for Slate magazine. He also covered the Bangkok 2010 Redshirt riots. During 2011 he worked for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists' Center for Public Integrity writing a three-month investigation on North Korea as a rogue state financed by criminal activity. In December 2011 he came out in opposition to the International Treaty to Ban Landmines.
KKK and white supremacists
In 2015, Thayer was the author of a controversial series of articles about race demonstrations in Charleston, South Carolina, in the wake of shootings carried out by Dylann Roof. The stories, which were first published in MarxRand, eventually attracted attention from the mainstream press. In particular, a story called "Patriot Games" was picked up by mainstream news organizations after being published on MarxRand, and subsequently commissioned as a separate story run in Vice later the same week. In the original version of the story, Thayer claimed that a Ku Klux Klan leader named Chris Barker was doubling as an undercover FBI operative "working for and protected by the U.S. Joint Terrorism Task Force." As a result of Barker's outing, Thayer wrote in September 2015 that "Mr Barker (has called and) hung up the phone several times, sent me incendiary emails and made threatening phone calls, and has since gone on White Nationalist internet forums to try to denounce the articles and defend his reputation" and that other Klan members had "threatened to decapitate my dog."
Blogger Jeremy Duns accused Thayer of plagiarism on March 7, 2013, a claim that was echoed in New York magazine. Mark Ziegler, author of the article in question, told the Columbia Journalism Review that he was "not ready to accuse Thayer of plagiarism," and said "I have no reason not to respect him as a fellow journalist." Ziegler said he was "not completely satisfied with the way [his article] was ultimately attributed" even in the corrected version of "25 Years of Slam Dunk Diplomacy".
The Columbia Journalism Review concluded that Thayer's "attribution was sloppy and he represented quotes that were said in other places as if they were said to him" but that it did not appear to be a case of plagiarism. The CJR interviewed Thayer's sources, and at least one confirmed he was interviewed extensively by Thayer.