Sydney Schanberg, Pulitzer-Winning NYT Journalist Depicted in ‘The Killing Fields,’ Dies at 82

Reporter covered fall of regime to Khmer Rouge in Cambodia that was basis for 1984 film

Last Updated: July 9, 2016 @ 4:19 PM

Sydney Schanberg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist whose work in Cambodia formed the basis for the film “The Killing Fields,” died on Saturday at the age of 82.

The New York Times reported Schanberg’s friend and fellow reporter Charles Kaiser said that Schanberg had suffered a heart attack on Tuesday and died at his home in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Schanberg joined the Times in 1959 and became their Southeast Asia correspondent in the early 1970s. In 1975, the Cambodian Lon Mol government was about to fall to the Khmer Rouge, led by the now infamous Pol Pot.

Schanberg ignored orders from his editors to flee Cambodia along with other Western journalists. He stayed behind along with his assistant, Dith Pran. Schanberg then documented the atrocities committed under Pol Pot’s control, which led to the deaths of some two million civilians.

Schanberg won the Pulitzer in 1976 for his Cambodia coverage. The citation for his award reads, “For his coverage of the Communist takeover in Cambodia, carried out at great risk when he elected to stay at his post after the fall of Pnom Penh.”

Schanberg attempted to track down Dith Pran, and the two were reunited after the latter escaped into Thailand in 1979. Schanberg got him a job at the times and wrote a book about his experiences entitled, “The Death and Life of Dith Pran.”

The book served as the basis for “The Killing Fields,” in which Sam Waterston played Schanberg and Haing S. Ngor played Dith Pran. The film won three Oscars, including Best Supporting Actor for Ngor.

Schanberg went on to become the Times’ Metropolitan editor, but left that position in 1980. He then wrote two columns per week from the paper until 1985, when he resigned in protest of their coverage of the proposed Westway highway. Over the next few decades, he would write for New York Newsday, Vanity Fair, Penthouse and The Village Voice.