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 the only photographs and video and eyewitness account that existed since he 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 seven 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. Our lawyers will deal with him. 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, they created the frame grab on the right from the video, distributed it personally to numerous news outfits crediting themselves with having taken the image, including the Associated Press, the New York Times, and placed it on their website.
ABC’s still picture frame grab from the video and distributed to the world voided scores of contracts I had sold for my stills for exclusive rights.
Below left is my original still photograph, which became worthless overnight because it was available for free from the ABC 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 they did nothing wrong and promised not to take legal action against them.I refused.
Nine months later, I won the Peabody Award as a “correspondent for ABC Nightline.” 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, 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. They tried to bankrupt me and ruin my reputation. But ABC 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. ABC tried to take credit for 15 years of my life work.
Risking his life, he got access to the Khmer Rouge like no other outsider. His long work culminated in the only independent eyewitness account of Pol Pot’s trial and death in 1998.
Today Nate mainly reports on North Korean affairs.