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Our Columnist Gets the Scoop on Ted Koppel's Scoop

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Earlier this year, Ted Koppel survived an attempt by ABC to bounce him and "Nightline" off the air for David Letterman's "Late Show," but will he be able to defend himself against a $30 million lawsuit?

Adages has learned that Mr. Koppel and ABC are being sued for $30 million in punitive damages and unspecified compensatory damages by Nate Thayer, a freelance reporter who alleges that they stole his exclusive story and that the "misappropriation of credit deprived Thayer of the advertising value of his name."

Thayer broke what has been called one of the great scoops of the last century. At the heart of the lawsuit is the question of who has the right to market a scoop to the rest of the media: The outlet airing the story or the reporter who got it?

In 1997, after a decade-long search, Thayer finally tracked down Pol Pot, who was believed to be dead, deep in the jungles of northern Cambodia. It was the first time Pol Pot had been photographed and interviewed in 20 years. And it was the last. The Cambodian dictator, who was said to be responsible for the deaths of about 3 million Cambodians, died under mysterious circumstances a year after Thayer filmed him. Thayer's video footage of the interview with Pol Pot aired on "Nightline" on July 28, 1997.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Oct. 30, alleges that Koppel and ABC breached a contract with Thayer that allowed for limited use of the Pol Pot footage. Thayer would get credit for the images and be paid $350,000 for the story. The agreement, the suit says, was made verbally in front of witnesses, and Koppel promised that ABC lawyers would draft a final document. "Don't worry," Koppel said to Thayer, according to the complaint. "You must trust me, journalist to journalist."

"Instead of complying with those terms," said Mel Weiss, partner at Milberg Weiss Berhad Hynes & Lerach, New York, which is representing Thayer, "ABC immediately created a frame grab, used it without giving Thayer credit, fixed ABC's logo on the photo saying `ABC News exclusive,' forwarded the frame to news services, posted it on the ABC Web site, gave a transcript of the video and a 10 minute portion of it to The New York Times, and broadcast the video on monitors throughout the streets of Cambodia, which basically destroyed Thayer's commercial viability with this product." The suit accuses Koppel and ABC of copyright infringement, breach of contract, unjust enrichment, tortious interference with business relations and fraud, among other things.

According to the complaint, Thayer never received a written contract. He claims an ABC lawyer told him the reason he couldn't get a contract that day was because the lawyer "did not know how to type" and he had "no secretary." Thayer also claims he did not receive payment until 10 months later, when ABC sent $350,000 to defuse the controversy after Thayer refused to accept a Peabody Award that he was to share with ABC for the Pol Pot report.

Along with damages, Thayer is demanding the defendants be required to pay him "the profits and other economic benefits realized." Profits would include advertising revenue "Nightline" got the nights it aired the footage, according to a person with knowledge of the lawsuit.

"In 1997 ABC News agreed to pay Nate Thayer the sizable sum of $350,000 for the rights to use his footage of former Cambodian dictator Pol Pot," said Jeffrey Schneider, VP, ABC News. "Despite the fact that ABC provided prominent and repeated credit and generous remuneration for his work, Mr. Thayer initiated a five-year barrage of complaints coupled with repeated demands for more money that culminate in this filing, in what is essentially a contract dispute. We find it unfortunate that Mr. Thayer and his lawyers have attempted to attack the good name of one of America's most respected news broadcasts as well as a journalist of impeccable reputation. We look forward to the opportunity to prove in court that Thayer's claims have no merit."

Send scoops to rlinnett@crain.com

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