Sydney H. Schanberg, a former New York Newsday columnist whose Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the war in Cambodia for The New York Times inspired an Academy Award-winning movie, died Saturday. He was 82.
In 1975, three years after Schanberg hired Dith Pran as his translator and assistant in Phnom Penh, the two were captured when Communist guerrillas overran the capital.
While Schanberg fled, Pran remained behind. One year later, Schanberg won the Pulitzer for international reporting “at great risk.”
Pran managed to escape years later, and Charles Kaiser, a colleague and friend of Schanberg, recalled his reunion with Pran as a turning point in Schanberg’s happiness.
“It was the miracle that really redeemed Sydney because until that time, he felt terrible every day of his life because he left behind his great friend in Cambodia and he hadn’t been able to save him,” Kaiser said. “He got a call that Dith was in some refugee camp, and Sydney flew off and that was really his redemption.”
Pran was hired by The Times. “The Death and Life of Dith Pran,” the memoir Schanberg wrote, was the basis for the 1984 film “The Killing Fields.”
Schanberg had a heart attack on Tuesday and died at 2:20 a.m. Saturday at Vassar Brothers Medical Center in upstate Poughkeepsie, his wife, Jane Freiman, said. They had lived in New Paltz for five years, she said.
Schanberg was “a wonderful, wonderful husband” who was “hilariously funny” and “a great dad and a loving granddad,” she said.
Freiman, a former restaurant critic for New York Newsday, said she was introduced to Schanberg in “a behind-the-scenes fix-up” by a deputy publisher in the office.
“He was the best reporter with the best news sense I ever knew,” Freiman said. “He considered journalism his religion. He loved newspapers and working for newspapers, writing for newspapers and reading newspapers.”
Schanberg was born on Jan. 17, 1934, in Clinton, Massachusetts, and attended Harvard College on several scholarships, graduating with a bachelor of arts degree in 1955. Drafted into the Army in 1956, he mainly served as a writer for the 3rd Armored Division newspaper in Frankfurt, Germany.
In March 1959, The Times hired Schanberg as a copy boy; he became a staff reporter the next year. In his 26 years at the Times, he covered the New York state Legislature and served as a foreign bureau chief in New Delhi, reporting on the 1971 war between India and Pakistan. He also was a metro editor.
Schanberg left The Times in 1985 when his column was discontinued after he criticized the paper’s coverage of the Westway highway development. Though offered another position, he joined New York Newsday, where he wrote a biweekly column called “New York” for the newspaper’s Viewpoints section for almost a decade. He also was an associate editor.
Les Payne, a former Newsday columnist and editor who dispatched Schanberg overseas for an assignment, remembered his tenacity and eagerness.
“He was a major force in journalism, in the newspaper business,” Payne said. “I think that courage is an easy word to throw around, but it applies to him and what he did in Southeast Asia . . . I found him an impeccable reporter and a painstakingly great writer. He was a pro, he was an inspiration, but he didn’t rely on that. He did not rest on his laurels. He attacked every story before him as a fresh story.”
Schanberg, who won several other awards for his international reporting, including two George Polk Memorial Awards, was known for his fearlessness and determination.
“He was incredibly passionate about everything he did,” Kaiser said. “He was someone who really believed in afflicting the powerful and comforting the afflicted. That was really the soul of his work.”
Though Schanberg’s coverage of Cambodia forever changed how the Communist regime will be remembered, Paul Moses, a former New York Newsday columnist, said: “He had a significant impact on New York journalism.”
At New York Newsday, “Sydney was an inspiration to the younger reporters on the staff because he was not afraid to go after powerful people,” Moses said.
“He was one of the few people in New York journalism at a certain point who were willing to look at the relationships between people in the real estate industry and politics. And his reporting when he was at The Times on the gentrification of the Upper West Side was really prophetic, not appreciated by The Times, but prophetic about the changes that would take place in the rest of New York City,” Moses said.
At The Times Schanberg delved into the rise in homelessness caused by the closing of single-room occupancy hotels and criticized the Westway Highway, a four-mile highway that would have run underground from Manhattan’s southern tip to midtown.
“Sydney was somebody the younger reporters really looked up to; he was always in the trenches with us, letting us bounce ideas off him, encouraging us,” Moses said.
Freiman said her husband admired “shoe-leather reporting” in his “old-school” style and would often ask strangers questions about their lives to fulfill his curiosity and get a better understanding of humanity. He worked up until last year, even after suffering vision loss beginning in 2009, she said. Still, his family would enlarge articles and other texts he wished to read and he would use a magnifying glass “to work in his mind every day,” his wife said.
“We’re so proud of him,” Freiman said. “We loved him because he was Syd, but also we were very pleased that he cared so much and respected journalism so much. His standards were so high and although he did it for himself, he really did it for the reader . . . He could spot a phony a thousand miles away. He knew if someone was lying, he just knew. That’s the gift not every reporter has. I feel it’s a gift he was blessed with, and I hope people understand that when they read what he writes.”
Schanberg married Janice Sakofsky in 1967, had two daughters and divorced. He married Freiman in 1995. Both daughters, Jessica Schanberg, 46, and Rebecca Schanberg, 45, live in Chicago. Rebecca Schanberg and her spouse, Jack Polsky, have three children, Jasper, Zoe, and Peter, Freiman said. Plans for a private family funeral were being made along with those for a public memorial ceremony in the fall.
With Joan Gralla