How–and Why– The New York Times Didn’t Interview Pol Pot
By Nate Thayer
January 23, 2014
After I interviewed Pol Pot in July and October 1997, my excellent magazine, the Far Eastern Economic Review–the sister publication of the Wall Street Journal and both owned by Dow Jones–nominated me and the story for a Pulitzer Prize.
It was a long shot as the Pulitzer is eligible only to correspondents for American media organizations, and the Review was incorporated in Hong Kong. However the story did run the same day on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, so the WSJ asked me to write a brief outline of how the story came about for the Foreign Editor, John Bussey, who formally drafted a letter to the Pulitzer committee.
Here is one such exchange of letters I wrote to my editor, the extraordinarily talented in his own right Nayan Chanda of the Far Easter Economic Review:
From: Nate Thayer at REVIEW 11/13/97 10:25 PM
To: Nayan Chande at REVIEW
Subject: RE: Pulitzer Nomination by Bussy/WSJ
After several hours composing the letter regarding the Pulitzer we talked about and based on the memo of (Wall Street Journal Foreign Editor John) Bussey, my computer crashed yesterday as I was finishing and I lost everything. Even with the intervention of Vincent in Hong Kong, it was not retrievable, so I have started again. Here is a stream of consciousness, letter to a friend style outline as suggested by you and John:
First of all, I think it would be to our advantage to promote the freelance aspect, rather than to try to weave around the fact that the Review was central to this whole getting to Pol Pot project being successful.
It has been a long time since a freelancer won a Pulitzer, and, as we all know, the politics of these awards sometimes overwhelm the meritocracy of it all, and freelancers–particularly foreign correspondents–take the brunt of risks and often go the extra mile.
The overwhelming number of foreign correspondents killed and wounded each year are freelancers, according to statistics compiled by Reporters Sans Frontiers and the Committee to Protect Journalists. It might be to our benefit to highlight this as an opportunity to recognize freelancers, and the net effect, of course, is that the Review, the Journal, and Dow Jones will ultimately receive the credit it deserves if we are a successful.
It is not irrelevant that the Khmer Rouge executed many foreign journalists in their day.
Another macro theme to be addressed is the question of why I was the one “allowed” in by the Khmer Rouge or “invited” in by the Khmer Rouge, the implication being that I cut a deal with them, am a “fellow traveler”, agreed to “conditions”, or paid them off. All of these are accusations that have been floating around and many of them I have been asked directly. The answer, of course, is that none of them are accurate.
I was not “invited” in by them or “selected” by them. I contacted them as I had done scores and scores of times over the last decade and carefully tried to convince them to let me in to interview Pol Pot. It took six weeks for the “trial” and more than four months of non-stop, 7 days a week cajoling, finagling, secret meetings, messages passed back and forth, contacts activated on my behalf etc. until they finally relented–a far cry from being “invited” and all its implications.
On the question of why I was the only journalist, the answer is simple; as far as I know, and I think I know clearly–I am the only Western journalist who has managed to open a direct channel with contacts. And it took many years of work on several continents to develop the contacts to the point where I now have the code names of the entire leadership, their secret mail drops, a channel through Europe that is actually a Chinese trained coded radio operator who sends coded messages directly to the jungle, and the mobile telephones of the top leaders that I call directly in the jungle, as well as intermediaries that hand deliver requests and communications.
The reason why the New York Times didn’t get in (which there is all kinds of suspicions being promulgated that I shut them out) is simple: Neither the New York Times or anyone working for them ever had any contact whatsoever with the Khmer Rouge.
Even though they traveled around the world to my hotel in the Thai border town of Surin on the eve of the Pol Pot interview, they, in fact were never going anywhere farther than the hotel lobby, little less into the Cambodian jungle.
This is a fact I know because when Elizabeth Becker and her cameraman and fixer arrived at the hotel in high heels and a dozen pieces of designer luggage the evening before I went into the Cambodian jungle, and informed me that they were going with me into Cambodia to meet Pol Pot, I made a couple of calls.
I excused myself from my whiskey and notebooks in the hotel coffee shop, went upstairs and simply called up on my mobile phone the chief of staff of the Khmer Rouge army and inquired whether there were other journalists scheduled to come into Khmer Rouge territory the next morning to interview Pol Pot with me. He said no there was not, that no one had contacted him, and they had never heard of Elizabeth Becker (These are peasant military commanders who don’t read the New York Times.) He further assured me–being the man in control of all the guns and check points accessing their control zones–that he would immediately put out a directive that no one else would be allowed access to their zones the next day except for me and my team. Given the fact that this man controls all the guns at their checkpoints, I was quite confident that Ms. Becker would not be accessing Khmer Rouge control zones.
I then called another friend of mine, the commander of the Royal Thai Army regional sector controlling the Thai border with Cambodia–who controlled all the heavily guarded checkpoints on the Thai side which controlled access out of Thailand into the no mans land between the Thai border and the Khmer Rouge zones. He, also, said that no one was granted permission to exit Thailand to access the Khmer Rouge zones save for me and my team. He further said he would immediately put out a directive to strictly forbid any other journalists or foreigners to exit Thailand the next day through his checkpoints.
So I slept quite confidently that night knowing that Ms. Becker and team would be enjoying the rest of their stay in Thailand mostly in the hotel lobby in Surin.
However, since I had confided with an academic during researching and preparation that I was scheduled to have this interview with Pol Pot had then called the NYT and said if they paid his way that he thought he could get the NYT an interview with Pol Pot, there was never any question that my competition was attempting to piggyback on an intensive four months and numerous years of meticulous and very difficult full-time work on my part, and I was Goddamned if I was going to be beat on this story by a Washington-based NYT “reporter” in high heels, a short skirt, and enough luggage to require a bellhop and a luggage cart who flew in from Washington with letters from senior U.S. officials’ who were her friends requesting she be given assistance in her “reporting” efforts.
It is in fact a classic difference in the way Washington correspondents and those in the field operate.
Elizabeth Becker got a call in D.C. and, in exchange for the NYT paying money to a “fixer” based at a University in London, flew across the world, after calling (U.S. State Department officials) Strobe Talbot and Stanley Roth, arrived in Bangkok and called the U.S. Ambassador and asked for their intervention on her behalf with the Thai military to secure permission from the Thai’s to accompany me into the Cambodian jungle.
The U.S. embassy staff were outraged at the combination of hubris and arrogance of being essentially ordered around to do the impossible and ludicrous. A more preposterous scenario could not be concocted. The NYT’s arrived at the border hotel with a truckload of luggage and smug demeanor as if the plan they had hatched was actually not comical, but rather a done deal.
In a place like Cambodia, and to interview Pol Pot of all people, the intervention of high level contacts from foreign governments (particularly those representing a government the Khmer Rouge considered the enemy with which they were at war with), does not work.
On the other hand, if you have slept in the jungle with the field commanders and his troops, and for a decade talked about what a drag malaria is, compare medicines, share your food over jungle campfires eating rice and bugs, and commiserate together on how you haven’t been laid for weeks because your girlfriend is living back at a rear base guerrilla headquarters or in (my case) my house in Thailand, and how the food sucks and you are tired of getting shot at and not getting paid shit, when it comes time to raise the bamboo pole by the guys with AK-47’s at the jungle checkpoint, the chances are considerably greater you will be allowed access.
It doesn’t matter whether you have a letter from the Pope, if the guy with the AK-47 has been told not to let you in, then you are not going anywhere, which is what happened with the New York Times.
When I arrived back at the hotel the next day from the jungle after interviewing Pol Pot, Ms. Becker was scurrying around frantic still in the hotel lobby, and inquired of me whether I knew why no one would allow her out of the hotel. I packed and left for Bangkok with the interviews of the Khmer Rouge leaders on videotape next to me in our Pajero.
The bottom line is the story didn’t take a few days; it took many years and there was a plan to try to interview Pol Pot and I had been carefully working every angle and was poised to jump at any opportunity and be ready for any scenario. I was rejected many times. But it finally worked, because we were ready to grab the opportunity and we had put the time and resources into it when it looked like it might or maybe even had a slim chance of, working. It easily could have failed at the last-minute and had many times before.
This time it didn’t.
So that is part of the reason we were able to access the inner sanctums of the Khmer Rouge and interview Pol Pot.