Richard Dudman, the chief Washington Correspondent for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in the 1970s, almost died in Cambodia – twice. Now, at age 97, he looks back at his reporting and says he may have been too easy on Pol Pot – the murderous dictator of Cambodia.
Dudman was captured in Cambodia while covering the war in 1970 and spent 40 days as a captive of Viet Cong. Five years later, after Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge took power, Pol Pot invited Dudman and two other Westerners to Cambodia to see for themselves what life was like. One was Elizabeth Becker, who had covered Cambodia for several years for The Washington Post. The other was Malcolm Caldwell, a radical Scottish lawyer. They were the first outsiders to get visas to Cambodia to interview Pol Pot.
Pol Pot wouldn’t answer questions during their session with him. But that night Dudman was awakened by gunshots outside their guest house. A Vietnamese terrorist threatened Becker, shot at Dudman, who hid under the bed, and then killed Caldwell.
Recently, a special Cambodian court organized to prosecute Khmer Rouge war crimes asked Dudman about his reporting from that era. A lawyer who was questioning Dudman said he seemed to have been easy on Pol Pot. Dudman said he just reported what he saw. But the lawyer’s question haunts him, he wrote in an op-ed in the Post-Dispatch.
Reporting in Cambodia required courage. But the hardest thing for a reporter to admit is he may have gotten a story wrong.