CAMBRIDGE — The journalism world bid farewell to a brave and enterprising freelance reporter this week when Nate Thayer died in his Massachusetts home at the age of 62.
Thayer, a native of Washington, D.C., is best known for having conducted the last interview with Cambodian dictator Pol Post, but also covered numerous other conflicts and unique stories.
He covered the 2003 invasion in Iraq for The Star Democrat, with a gripping report from Baghdad in the opening days of the allied campaign to topple the Saddam Hussein-led government.
“Night has just fallen here in Baghdad, and I am scared that tonight I will die,” Thayer wrote in his dispatch published in the March 26, 2003, edition of The Star Democrat. “Last night hundreds were wounded where I am,” Thayer wrote before described the attacks on the Iraqi capital in the opening days of the war.
Thayer wrote about the dual threat posed to journalists by the Iraqi government and the coalition airstrikes, citing the demolition of the hotel he had initially checked in to, as well as other near misses.
“The blasts from the bombs are so intense that the liquid in your body gurgles and warms and the concussion sucks the air from your lungs,” he wrote.
The reporter’s Iraqi handler had to disguise Thayer’s country of origin while the reporter was covering the capture of the aircrew of two coalition planes, telling the other Iraqis the foreigner was from Germany.
For Thayer and his colleague, that fear of the Iraqis would grow to outweigh the fear of the danger from the conflict itself. Thayer wrote that coverage of other wars had inured him somewhat to the danger posed by “American bombs,” but that a “sea change” in the Iraqi sentiment was most disturbing. “So it is not the war, it is the mood of the people that we fear.”
“The city is thick with anger and defiance,” he wrote. “As an American, it is understandable that rage and venom for the American government is a veneer ready to be punctured and directed at us.”
Thayer’s fearless reporting and his drive to find stories in dangerous and challenging circumstances was most widely shown when he sat down for an interview with notorious and murderous Pol Pot.
After he became a resident of a farm in Woolford in Dorchester County, the journalist delivered a talk at the Dorchester County library about his experiences in Cambodia in an event that was covered in the Oct. 20, 2000, edition of the Dorchester Star.
Thayer’s interview with Pol Pot came near the eventual end of the dictator’s life as as the culmination of two decades of political reporting in Southeast Asia.
The crowd at the Oct. 12, 2000 lecture listened as Thayer spoke on the nature of the Cambodian people and the political system, or in his view, the tragic near-absence of one. He spoke of his perception of the the U.S. government’s view of both the situation in Cambodia and his reporting on it.
“We don’t really care what is going on in the country anymore,” he said of the former. “There were many in the U.S. government who were very helpful to me,” in spite of the sometimes critical institutional view of his work, he said of the latter.
Thayer said even in the face of consequences for his leadership of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, Pol Pot said, “My conscience is clear.” In the interview, Pol Pot told Thayer about his attempt to turn Cambodia into a collectivist agrarian utopia, an effort that began with forcing people to move to the countryside and ended with hundreds of thousands of deaths.
The interview eventually garnered the freelancer the 1998 prize for Outstanding International Investigative Reporting from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
The March 2003 Star Democrat article sharing Thayer’s dispatch from Baghdad outlined some of the freelancer’s previous work, including writing for the Associated Press, The Washington Post and Far Eastern Economic Review, in addition to coverage of the Iraq conflict for Slate and Esquire magazine.
Thayer said he was attracted to the farm in the marshy southern reaches of Dorchester by its relative isolation and the likelihood it wouldn’t change much. “It’s unlikely they can spoil the natural beauty,” he said of his home at the time.
His writing wasn’t strictly limited to international affairs. In a May 11, 2001, opinion in The Star Democrat, Thayer wrote about a shooting of a dog a week prior by a police officer in Centreville. After a description of the events, Thayer scathingly condemned the actions of the officer, and called for a review of the Centreville police practices dealing with dogs and a specific and strenuous review of the incident in question.
In his October 2000 talk, Thayer emphasized the importance of a free press. He said he understood why many had a negative view of the media, pinning some blame on editorial bents that skewed stories. He related an experience when an article he submitted to two different publications was run by both, as “two different versions” due to editorial control exercised by each. He said in spite of any deserved criticism, real journalism was crucial.
“You will not find any society in the world that is free without a free press,” he said. And Nate Thayer, who experienced firsthand and then reported on some of the most troubled societies of his day, would certainly know.