Sydney Schanberg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times correspondent best known for his raw, gripping coverage of Cambodia’s fall to the Khmer Rouge, has died at 82.
His longtime friend Charles Kaiser confirmed his death to NPR. Schanberg had suffered a heart a heart attack last Tuesday, Kaiser said, and died early Saturday.
“A restive, intense, Harvard-educated newspaperman with bulldog tenacity, Mr. Schanberg was a nearly ideal foreign correspondent,” the Times wrote in its obituary of Schanberg. The newspaper described him as a “risk-taking adventurer who distrusted officials, relied on himself in a war zone and wrote vividly of political and military tyrants and the suffering and death of their victims with the passion of an eyewitness to history.”
His 1980 New York Times magazine piece “The Death and Life of Dith Pran” was later adapted into a film called The Killing Fields, which won three Academy Awards.
Dith, a Cambodian-born journalist, was working with Schanberg in 1975 when they ignored the directives of Times editors to leave Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh as it fell to the Khmer Rouge. The magazine piece chronicles their experiences as the rebels tighten their grip on the capital, and later documents Dith’s survival during the Cambodian genocide, which left as many as 2 million Cambodians dead.
Schanberg vividly describes the executions and looting as the Khmer Rouge soldiers pushed the city’s residents into the countryside in an effort to launch a supposed agrarian revolution. The soldiers, he writes, “are universally grim, robotlike, brutal. Weapons drip from them like fruit from trees — grenades, pistols, rifles, rockets.”
Schanberg and Dith were separated shortly after. Dith was forced to the countryside, where he posed as a taxi driver and survived on insects, rodents and a rice ration of “one spoonful per person per day.” As the Times reports, Schanberg returned to the U.S. and was “overwhelmed with guilt over having to leave Mr. Dith behind.”
He had no news of his friend for years, until Dith escaped in 1979, after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. The two were reunited shortly after, and Dith became a staff photographer at the Times.
Schanberg spoke to NPR in 2008, after Dith’s death.
“His mission became trying to tell the rest of the world what was happening to his people,” Schanberg said. “And my mission was essentially the same, and we quickly realized that.”
The two, he wrote, shared common priorities as journalists covering Cambodia:
“[W]hat propelled both of us was the human impact — the 10-year-old orphans in uniforms, carrying rifles almost as tall as themselves; the amputees lying traumatized in filthy, overcrowded hospitals; the skeletal infants rasping and spitting as they died while you watched in the all-too-few malnutrition clinics; and the sleepless, unpaid soldiers taking heavy fire at the front lines, depending on the ‘magic’ amulets they wore around their necks while their generals took siestas after long lunches several miles behind the fighting.”
After he returned from Southeast Asia, “Mr. Schanberg was The Times’s metropolitan editor from 1977 to 1980 and wrote a column twice a week, with a focus on New York, from 1981 to 1985,” the Times reported. The column was “discontinued after he criticized the Times’s coverage of the proposed Westway highway in Manhattan.” He then left the paper to “write a column for New York Newsday, where he remained for a decade,” as the Times reported.
Along with the Pulitzer, Schanberg was awarded two George Polk awards, two Overseas Press Club awards and the Sigma Delta Chi prize for distinguished journalism. He is survived by his wife Jane Freiman and daughters Rebecca and Jessica.