Looking for Hope Amid Despair: an NPR Correspondent's Notebook
John Burnett retired in January after 36 years as an award-winning roving correspondent for NPR based in Austin. He covered many of this era's big stories and filed from 30 different countries. He looks back on his career and shares some of his favorite stories and audio recordings with MBC.
About our speaker:
John Burnett, a working journalist for 43 years, retired from daily reporting in January 2023. He currently spends his time doing freelance stories, bicycling, playing the harmonica, and discovering new Texas BBQ joints.
For 36 years, he was a roving national correspondent for NPR based in Austin. In his last year, 2022, he covered Polarized America to explore all facets of our politically and culturally divided nation. Prior to this assignment, Burnett covered immigration, Southwest border affairs, Texas news, and produced frequent music features and audio postcards from his sprawling beat. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program.
Though he was assigned to the National Desk, his beat sometimes stretched around the world.
He filed stories from more than 30 countries after joining NPR in 1986. In 2012, he spent five months in Nairobi as the East Africa Correspondent, followed by a stint during 2013 as the network's religion reporter. His long-term reporting projects included working in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina, embedding with the First Marine Division during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and extensive coverage of the U.S. drug war in the Americas. His reports were heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
Burnett's 2008 groundbreaking four-part series "Dirty Money"—which examined how law enforcement agencies have gotten hooked on and, in some cases, corrupted by seized drug money—won three national awards: a Scripps Howard National Journalism Award for Investigative Reporting, a Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists Award for Investigative Reporting, and a national Edward R. Murrow Award. His 2007 three-part series "The Forgotten War," which took a critical look at the nation's 30-year war on drugs, won a Nancy Dickerson Whitehead Award for Excellence in Reporting on Drug and Alcohol Problems.
In 2006, Burnett's memoir, Uncivilized Beasts & Shameless Hellions: Travels with an NPR Correspondent, was published by Rodale Press. In that year, he also served as an Ethics Fellow at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Florida.
In 2004, Burnett won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for investigative reporting for his story on the accidental U.S. bombing of an Iraqi village. His work was singled out by judges for the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award honoring the network's overall coverage of the Iraq War. In 2003, Burnett won a first place National Headliner Award for investigative reporting about corruption among federal immigration agents on the U.S.-Mexico border.
In the months following the attacks of September 11, Burnett reported from New York City, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. His reporting contributed to coverage that won the Overseas Press Club Award and an Alfred I. duPont Columbia University Award.
In 2001, Burnett reported and produced a one-hour documentary, "The Oil Century," for KUT-FM in Austin, which won a silver prize at the New York Festivals. He was a visiting faculty member in broadcast journalism at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in 2002 and 1997. He received a Ford Foundation Grant in 1997 for a special series on sustainable development in Latin America.
Burnett's favorite stories are those that reveal a hidden reality. Two examples: He happened upon Carlos Garcia, a Mexico City street musician who played a musical leaf, a chance encounter that brought a rare and beautiful art form to a national audience. In reporting his series "Fraud Down on the Farm," Burnett spent nine months investigating the abuse of the United States crop insurance system and shining light on surprising stories of criminality.
Abroad, his report on the accidental U.S. Air Force bombing of the Iraqi village of Al-Taniya, an event that claimed 31 lives, helped listeners understand the fog of war. His "Cocaine Republics" series in 2004 was one of the first accounts to detail the emergence of Central America as a major drug smuggling region. But many listeners remember the audio postcard he filed while on assignment in Peshawar, Pakistan, after 9/11 about what it was like being, at six-foot-seven, the "tallest American at a Death-to-America rally."
Prior to coming to NPR, Burnett was based in Guatemala for United Press International covering the Central America civil wars. From 1979-1983, he was a staff reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, the Waco Tribune-Herald and the Garland Daily News.
Burnett graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor's degree in journalism. He has three children. He is married to Margaret Justus, former journalist and deputy press secretary to Texas Gov. Ann Richards.
6:50am - Coffee & Networking
7:10am - Breakfast Buffet
7:25am - Introductions & Announcements
7:50am - Speaker Introduction
8:20am - Q&A
8:30am - Have a wonderful Wednesday!
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