How Ted Koppel and ABC TV Tried to Steal my Life Work

How Ted Koppel and ABC TV Tried to Steal my Life Work

By Nate Thayer

December 8, 2013

I am banned by legal agreement to write the following: ABC Television/ Disney Corporation, after seven years in court, where they attempted to bankrupt me and ruin my reputation for objecting to them stealing fifteen years of my life work, buckled and paid me. They have the legal right to take back the money they finally paid me–which actually all went to lawyers and taxes–if I open my mouth.

Fuck them.

Good luck getting blood from a stone while trying to attempt to muzzle a free person in a free society while claiming you are an icon of the free press and free speech

So here goes…..

On July 25, 1997, I was the first outsider to meet Pol Pot since he killed 1.8 million people 20 years before.

It was, for a couple of days, the biggest story in the world. I, as a freelance journalist, had the only photographs and video and eyewitness account that existed since Pol Pot did what he did. It was a tumultuous few days of dealing with the very worst of what the big media companies represented.

Ted Koppel, of ABC Nightline, flew to Bangkok to view the video and signed a written contract for “North American video rights only for 7 days.” ABC America–owned by Disney–told Koppel to sign whatever Thayer asks for–our lawyers will deal with it later. He is just a freelancer. Give him whatever he wants. We can bankrupt him if he objects.

As soon as ABC, which had exactly zero correspondents in Southeast Asia, got a hold of a copy of the tape, which Ted Koppel personally and in writing promised he would not allow any frame grabs to be made into still pictures, or allow the video to be distributed to anyone outside of Nightline, or allow the transcript of the text of the video to be shown to anyone else, ABC created the below frame grabs from the video, distributed it personally to numerous news outfits, including the AP and the New York Times, where it appeared on their front page above the fold, and ABC placed them on their website crediting themselves with having taken the image.

My picture, credited to ABC TV, was published on the front pages of hundreds of newspapers around the world, my footage was distributed around the globe, and my story was written in virtually every major news organ on earth, credited to ABC TV, before I actually had written my own story . which was published with the integrity and dignity and seriousness it deserved in my excellent publication, the Far Eastern Economic Review.

1018923 Pol Pot ABC Frame Grab Pic

ABC TV stolen pictures frame grab from my copyrighted work. Count them--four separate credits demanding ABC be given credit for photographs taken when ABC did b not even have a staff person in all of Southeast Asia. This photo was hand delivered to the New York Times, The AP and posted on ABC's website

ABC TV stolen pictures frame grab from my copyrighted work. Count them–four separate credits demanding ABC be given credit for photographs taken when ABC did b not even have a staff person in all of Southeast Asia. This photo was hand delivered to the New York Times, The AP and posted on ABC’s website

ABC distributed transcripts of the trial of Pol Pot I had made and allowed other news organizations to view the video tape with strict instructions to credit ABC for the images and story, and then refused to pay me anything unless I signed a release that they did nothing wrong and I promised not to take legal action against them.

I refused.

Nine months later, I won the Peabody award as a “correspondent for ABC Nightline.”

Ted Koppel called me up, nervous, to congratulate me.

I said “Fuck you! Where is my fucking money? I am going to go to the Peabody awards ceremony and refuse the award and tell the planet what unethical thieves ABC are and how you, Ted Koppel, acted as their pimp.” I was then banned from attending the award ceremony, escorted out of the Waldorf Astoria hotel banquet room by security guards.

I spent seven years in court fighting ABC.

I won, sort of.

It sucked the life out of me, which was the exact intention of ABC: to make my life as miserable and expensive and distracted as possible to punish me for objecting to bald plagiarism, fraud, and theft. They tried to bankrupt me and ruin my reputation.

But ABC fucked with the wrong person. They will never fuck with Nate Thayer again.

It was worth it. They thought I would back down in the face of their team of hundreds of staff lawyers and corporate power.

I refused.

Such is the life of freelance journalism.

Every freelance journalist alive has suffered under the corporate jackboot of the ABC’s of the media world, their work stolen and never compensated. Usually it is not possible to pay for a legal team to fight them to get remunerated for one’s work.

Above and below are a couple of the still pictures, still available by a simple Google search online.

Another ABC frame grab of my still pictures, taken after 15 years of work, which they distributed to the planet and took credit for

Another ABC frame grab of my still pictures, taken after 15 years of work, which they distributed to the planet and took credit for

These are just some examples of the still picture ABC frame grab’s ABC took from the video and distributed to the world, voiding scores of contracts I had sold for my stills for exclusive rights.I had scores of contracts for the sale of still pictures, video, and stories cancelled around the globe overnight.

ABC tried to take credit for 15 years of my life work. Below is one of my original still photographs, which became worthless overnight because  a degraded version was available for free from the ABC website.


One of my actual still photographs–taken by me–with a Nikon F-4 on July 25, 1997—the first pictures of Pol Pot taken since he murdered 1.8 million people during his 3 years 8 months and 20 days in power

My still photograph, which became worthless on the international market after ABC TV America stole my pictures and tried to take credit for 15 years of my life work

My still photograph, which became worthless on the international market after ABC TV America stole my pictures and tried to take credit for 15 years of my life work


    • says

      Nate, now you have defied the gag you actually have the upper hand, because if they take action against you they risk the very corporate damage they wanted to avoid with the pay-off and gag. I would now go after them in a big way – arguing that they still seek to danmage your reputation and earning capacity by making it impossible to do what you do for a living – tell the truth and be damned. You still can’t use the photos because what organisation/company will pay for something that is on the internet as being copyright of ABC? Who is going to risk a law suit from Disney. So they should be paying royalties for every hit on those illegal ABC pictures and an estimated royalty for the past nine years. I would also encourage you to consider taking action against all the news outlets who bought the story from ABC, because they owe you the money, plus interest, they paid to ABC, and then they’ll need to take action against ABC to get their money back – it was their job to make sure what they were buying belonged to the seller surely? And then I would ask why the public prosecutor’s office didn’t take action for theft … surely that’s what it was and you’ve been paid off in a civil case but surely there’s a criminal case for ABC and Koppel to answer? There’s another issue too – when they were guilty, how come you had to pay your own legal fees to prove it – they should have paid them, they were the thieves here,not you.I don’t know how your taxes work .. but I’d have thought that it’s at least worth suggesting that the revenue should also take action against ABC and Koppel for withholding your taxes – just an extra thought how to spoil their days. Then I would get someone to write a song about their theft – Steve Earle could be a good bet – get it on You Tube, all about ABC being thieves and enemies of free speech – call it the Beat the gag campaign and get everyone who ‘likes’ the song to send ABC and Disney executives a message. I would just never leave them alone until they paid you properly and admitted publicly that they are a sadsack bunch of fucking robbers. Rae

    • says

      Nate, I just want to applaud you for telling the story. I have heard bits and pieces of this since I moved to Cambodia five years ago, and I’m glad to now know the full truth. I am sick of bullying tactics by big corporations, and equally sick of gag orders as a condition of lawsuit settlements.

      • says

        Yeah all the more power to you nate… Screw it that people are taking advantage of your stealing your goddamn hard work you worked for soo damn hard… its not right one single damn bit especially hen we are all 100% free and beyond. regardless of what anyone says.. law or not, you can still say what you want to say. This big media is CRAP anyways. it shows nothing but more CRAP… Some stories are good like this pol pot one but if it were directed back at the original person who did this hard work in the first place! Namaste and one love my brother! corruption stops only from the actions of those who choose to want to end corruption. which naturally is everyone 😀 hahaha

    • says

      I had photos of something that would have been the number one story in the world years ago. It would still be on the news but when I contacted one of the big 4 jerk-off news corps., they told me to send everything and they would send me check. I told them that there was a better and fairer way to deal with this and that they needed to contact my attorney for the photos. I did send them the written story and they desperately wanted the photos. That night, in Monterey, CA, my house was broken into and ransacked with nothing taken because, and only because, I had put all the photos and super 8 video footage in my locker at the college. I stashed them away and decided that one could not trust this government / corporate news media and to this day, the photos sit, never seen with the only knowledge of it, in my brain. Never, ever trust the big news corps.

      • Brian says

        Um, put that shit on Reddit, Tumblr or something. You’ll get lots of credit and the world will get to see some rare pics.

      • Steve Collins says

        That doesn’t work either, since the news never reached anyone. I’d rather ABC steal your work than have you hide it from the world. Of course, it would be better if you could be fairly compensated and share the film and photos.

  1. says

    I am blown away by your courage and tenacity, Nate. I’ve been a freelancer for more than 30 years. I’ve butted heads with the powers that be from time to time, but nothing like what you’ve been through. I am in awe of the moral fiber you are showing by ignoring their gag order. I hope your story gets out there and those SOBs are exposed for what they are.

    • Truth Defender says

      If people never challenge the powers that be, we’d probably still believe that the universe revolves around the earth.

    • ethelw says

      Are you saying that Nate would be better off had he been a door mat for Ted Koppel, Disney and all the others who stole his work and stuffed a gag order in his mouth? Perhaps if he was a worm your suggestion would have some merit, however Nate is a tenacious journalist who suffered land mines, jungle fever and God knows what else for the basic tenets of journalism. I am also unclear as to how you can say he had 15 years of his life go down the drain-since when are warriors for the greater good of civic society wasting their time? What would you prefer Nate do with his time now? Please respond, I would like to know what you think Nate should do with his time.

  2. old broad says

    Please watch your back! I always thought those pinko commies at ABC where the biggest rats to come dawn the pike !

    • says

      Yes, after 7 years in court, ABC paid. The lawyers and taxes took all of it, plus seven years of my work to get them to pay for the amount they agreed to, in writing, signed by Koppel. It was worth it, but was just an example of what freelance writers, journalists, photographers etc go through every day. In this case, the story was big enough where lawyers were willing to take on the case. I, and thousands of other freelancers, are owed for hundreds of our pictures and stories which have been published and sold in good faith, but then dead silence when it comes to actually paying. In almost all cases, it is impossible to feasibly hire a lawyer to fight for the payment of what, typically, is $500 or $700 dollars for a story or photograph.It costs more to demand payment than the payment would be. That is exactly what the ABC’s of the world know to be true.

      • Plain Jane says

        We’re you a member of the National Writers Union?

        In UK any problem with no payment from clients has just resulted in my going to my union, the NUJ and they helped fix the problem and I have never not been paid.

        Your story sounds very bad but my advice to any aspiring freelancer would be to join a trade union and if you do get a big scoop like yours go to them first for legal advice.

      • says

        I’d love to see PBS do a nice story on this on NEWSHOUR. I would hope they have: better ethics; fewer lawyers; a commitment to the truth; and an interest in a great story like this.

        Now, if only John Stewart could latch onto this they way he obsesses about CNN … I wonder … HE seems like a good guy who hates bullies and stupid greedy people.

        • says

          Heck yeah!! John Stewart is retiring Aug 2015. I bet Stewart’s team would be very interested. After all, movie Kill the Messenger was released in theatres recently.

      • says

        This is where photographers need to stop being artists and start acting as smart business men and women. Had you refused to send the photos without first receiving payment upfront you and others wouldn’t be in this mess. It’s time that photogs stop acting ‘on good faith’ and ask to be paid upfront (just like every other business in this world!). I’ve had Ad agencies release thousands of dollars to help push a project through, but the same client had me wait 60 days for another job…why? Because I didn’t ask for it upfront. I will never make that mistake again. They (big business) have the money and the means to get it to you quickly. Stop being pussies and demand payment upfront. NO MONEY = NO PICTURES – end of story. We created this problem now we (collectively as photographers) need to stop it. Lets make upfront payments the industry standard, not the exception.

  3. says

    Major networks and photo agencies usually just screw “freelancers” because they know freelanceers do not have the money and resources to fight them in court….On a smaller scale the same thing happened to me when I became a “paparazzo” here in L.A. in 2007…the major celebrity photo agencies screwed me left and right without paying me what was due to me even though they already sold my images worldwide—until finally I just stopped shooting. I’d rather not shoot—-so none of these greedy bastards can make money off of my images….

    Here’s my site:

      • alex says

        I think he was comparing himself to a freelancer. Besides, the guy got screwed over in doing his job just like “real” journalists do so why not give him a break?

  4. says

    Bravo for sticking up for your rights. Congratulations on winning and I wish you every strength and success for the future should they try and take away your payment.

  5. Karl Grobl says

    I admire your tenacity Nate. Good for you for hanging in there and never giving up. Your moral victory is very important. For what it’s worth, there are a lot of us out here who can’t hear the name Pol Pot without thinking of you. We know you’re the guy who broke the Pol Pot story and we thank you for doing your job, and doing it well. Shame on ABC, bravo Nate Thayer.

  6. Geoffrey Dean-Smith says

    Dear Nate. You not only have the truth on your side, but you have the proof of the truth. I feel that now you have exposed the undeniable facts, an experienced criminal lawyer will hopefully respond and be prepared to fight for you until these cowards and bullies are exposed for their dishonorable and disgraceful behavior.

    All arrogance will reap a harvest rich in tears. God calls men to a heavy reckoning for overweening pride – Aeschylus.

    The individuals who cheated you, will have that little worm of corruption eating away at their insides, perhaps without even knowing it. Shame on them and all the falsehoods they represent. One way or another they will get their just desserts. Good luck Nate.

    Geoffrey Dean-Smith

  7. says

    Sad that my infringement list grows on my blog, and it’s getting worse each day when companies blatantly disregard the rights of others. Your tenacity is to be applauded, but sadly you are right, the average person (like moi) can’t afford to defend our rights against companies that rip off our work.

  8. says

    This seems to happen so much, although perhaps not on this scale. But the fact is that the individual are so overmatched by the corporate legal team most people choose to just let it go. There needs to be something like the ACLU but for the rights of journalists (especially freelancers). We’re getting killed on this because no one is banding together.

  9. David Boring says

    Good for you, man. If there’s anything I can’t stomach in life it’s rolling over and conceding because someone else has more power/resources.

    One thing that’s worth reiterating is that what happened to you wasn’t simply the mechanism of Corporate News screwing the little guy. This sort of cowardly, selfish behaviour on the part of ABC executives reveals a lack of honesty and integrity that’s every bit as significant as what the recent US Govt./NSA surveillance revelations show.

    While Big Media tries to discredit independent journalists, they’re digging their own graves. When their reputations are shot, all they’ll have left to keep them company at night will be the billions of dollars of ad revenue we so idiotically provide to them.

    Fuck them. Their day is coming.

  10. says

    So sad to see freelance journalists getting bullied around like this. I hope your story blows up around the world and exposes what kind of news organization ABC really is. People like that need to be taught a lesson. And in the age of social media, they’ll regret this.

    You suck, Ted Koppel.

  11. Tee Dot says

    ABC, shame on you. You selfish jerks could have been decent human beings, but no, you made an innocent man’s life hell for nearly two decades. I won’t be watching ABC or going to any of their websites from now on.

  12. Dwaine Dibbly says

    Terrible abuse by ABC, but I doubt if any of the other big media outlets would have acted differently. Is it possible to buy prints from you? I’d love to have one in my office as a reminder of this incident and as a small way of supporting you for your courage and perseverance. (I just started following you on Twitter in case updates or print info becomes available there.)

  13. says

    From what I remember, ABC made publicity screen grabs of Pol Pot’s jungle trial from the ripped-off video. Reuters moved them on the wire, and the New York Times ran one on the front page. I don’t know if Reuters and NYT knew what they were doing, but what did it matter? Some freelancer got lucky, and would never be heard from again.

    But they were dealing with Nate Thayer. Four months later, when he got the exclusive Pol Pot interview, he sold the photos that went around the world with the following labels: Reuters: OUT, New York Times: OUT, ABC News: OUT.

    You can call it revenge, or karma. I call it good journalism.

  14. goldenerhimmelsdrache_mächtig says

    Hey Nate, I’m a young student who is trying to get his foot into doc film and journalism and just a month ago I saw your footage of Pol Pot and first of all I want to tell you that I really admired the way you managed the interview. In the exact moment I saw it I really felt how much sensible and honest journalism is lacking not only in your or my country but around the world. The fact that you got fucked over is really tearing me apart. Keep up your fight!

    Best greetings from Germany

  15. Denisio Fabuloso says

    Presently the Atlantic and Pacific Trade negotiation want to legislate in such a way that it will increase the power and influence of these self same corporations. They will even have the ‘right’ to sue sovereign countries for perceived lack of future profit. They are presently undertaking action against Puerto Rico as we speak… because this principled country does not want to have their environment ruined by these corporate destroyers and liars.This is set to get a whole lot worse unless ordinary people speak up and protest loudly. I truly loathe these lying dishonest psychos with all my being. I hope they get screwed… which is what they deserve. I much admire Mr Nate Thayer for the stand he is taking. Good luck Sir.

  16. says

    Now you have been paid your agreed amount it’s time to take them to court for the 7 digit sum you are owed. I can only imagine how much you have lost from their actions ruining other possible sales of your work let alone lost work for 7 years while fighting this.
    THEY OWE YOU A LOT MORE. Sorry to say it, but you are just getting started with them.

    Also, how about everybody in the US join together in a protest against ABC? They obviously feel it’s OK to steal and don’t respect copyright so a national “download/pirate/steal from ABC” day should show them what it feels like.

    Their actions are disgusting. I can only say a hearty thank you for breaking their BS non-disclosure agreement and hope you can get what you are truly owed from them.

  17. NullOp says

    Big Media expects everyone to bend over for them. Having money equates to having access to lawyers which means power. It’s a fantasy to believe the law exists to protect anyone. It exists to protect the right of the rich and powerful to keep you in your place as a serf, i.e. a resource to be harvested.

  18. says

    More power to you. I’m kind of surprised ABC’s competitors don’t snap this story right up. Pit the big corps against each other and we can all sit back and watch the fireworks. Unfortunately I fear it’s more likely they’d collude, but a guy can dream, can’t he?

    Someone posted this to reddit. I wish I could help it get more traction because I’d love to see ABC take this right on the chin of their smarmy self-righteous face.

  19. Esama says

    Very interesting how manipulative they did select the frames from the videos ! Regarding the first close-up photo of him: Pol Pot appeared in this interview as an extremely lovely, friendly, responsible, trustworthy, discrete human being. There were only a few milli-seconds in this 40 min. interview where he was hit by the brutal mass-murder allegations of Nate Thayer.
    Same with the second selected photo: He has difficulties to walk due to his illness and the soldiers do help him walking – but these photo look like they would have captured a guilty man. Typical manipulation.


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