Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg passed away on Saturday following a massive heart attack last Tuesday. He was 82.
Schanberg was best known for his coverage of the Vietnam War, specifically the Nixon Administration’s secret bombing of Cambodia, and later the Khmer Rouge’s tyranny in that country. He collaborated with Cambodian photojournalist Dith Pran and both remained after the fall of Phnom Penh. While Schanberg was allowed to leave, Pran was not and spent several years in a Khmer Rouge labor camp before escaping to Thailand. Pran was lucky. A million Cambodians were not.
When Phnom Penh fell, Schanberg predicted “it is difficult to imagine how their lives could be anything but better with the Americans gone.” But with Pran’s ordeal and those of the Cambodian people under Communist rule, Schanberg would regret those words. His 1980 book The Death & Life of Dith Pran would be adapted into the Academy Award winning film The Killing Fields. Schanberg was played by Sam Waterston and Pran was played by Dr. Haing S. Ngor, who himself had survived the Khmer Rouge regime and would win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Sadly, Ngor was murdered 20 years ago in Los Angeles and his homicide remains unsolved to this day. Pran died in 2008 of pancreatic cancer. If nothing else, both Schnanberg and Pran drew the world’s attention to Cambodia and the evil of the Khmer Rouge.
L.A. Times columnist Carolina A. Miranda, whose first job in journalism was with Schanberg at the now defunct New York Newsday wrote of her former boss:
More than anyone, he taught me that as a journalist, there are no dumb questions — only dumb answers. He taught me the art of the follow-up question. And he also taught me a thing or two about persistence. “They haven’t called you back? Call again,” he would growl, before disappearing under a heavy cloud of smoke in his office.
She could not have asked for a better mentor.