John Burnett

Daily Texan alumnus and National Public Radio correspondent John Burnett is currently working on an assignment about religion in East Africa. 

Photo Credit: Guillermo Hernandez | Daily Texan Staff

John Burnett, UT graduate and National Public Radio’s roving correspondent based in Austin, exemplifies the meticulous journalistic style that has come to define NPR’s most popular programs. Even in an age where print media is in steady decline and celebrity-centric journalism takes precedence on TV networks, Burnett’s work as a reporter demonstrates that NPR is not only surviving the transition to the digital generation, but continuing to attract new listeners.

From the inundated streets of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan, Burnett’s dynamic beat has brought him into contact with places all over the world for the last 27 years. For the past five months, the 6-foot-7-inch reporter has been working on an interim assignment based in Kenya.

“Right now, I’m covering religion for NPR in East Africa,” Burnett said. “But normally, I cover the [American] Southwest, which includes the borderlands. I’ve covered it for a very long time and speak Spanish.”

After getting his start on UT’s campus writing for The Daily Texan and studying journalism, Burnett traveled to Guatemala to learn Spanish and cover civil wars around Central America. Work for the United Press International helped him garner experience with radio broadcasting, and since finding his niche, Burnett has never looked back.

“The one thing I love about radio is that you have this extra dimension to report a story so you go in with your ears open; you’re not just looking for details but you’re listening for details,” Burnett said. “You just learn to use sound to illustrate a story.”

Yet, reporting for international news organizations isn’t a care-free occupation, especially since Burnett specializes in a region of the world plagued by cartel wars and drug trafficking. The United States-Mexico Border has a distinguished reputation for manipulating, terrorizing and killing Mexican journalists. 

Although most reporting does not involve any hazardous circumstances, Burnett said, NPR has a hired security consultant who instructs reporters on “conceal and cover” techniques, first aid and situational awareness in countries with higher risk.

“[He and I] were in contact before I went to Mogadishu [Somalia] or the Congo. You have to have a pretty big security detail as a reporter; four gunmen around you at all times when you’re outside of the car, so it’s inhibiting, but it’s the cost of doing business there,” Burnett explained. 

At times, travel has also been a difficult aspect of his work for NPR. Raising a family while constantly on the move is no easy task, and in his memoir “Uncivilized Beasts and Shameless Hellions,” Burnett thanks his family for their support even in his absence.

Julie Hiebert, a friend of the Burnett family, argues that in spite of continuous departures from his home in Austin, Burnett’s work seems to bring him closer to the community he often leaves behind. 

“All of his family members have always been very proud of him and very supportive,” Hiebert said. “And in some ways I think he’s gathered more friends around him over the years. You’d think the opposite with someone who is so busy and so on. And I know when he goes places he makes friends, too.”

Burnett’s prowess as a journalist has earned him recognition and numerous awards including the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award  and the Edward R. Murrow Award from the Radio-Television Digital News Association. His reports are frequently heard on member station KUT Radio, an affiliate of NPR that pays for daily programming, according to KUT news editor Matt Largey. 

Burnett’s popularity has also landed him some time on Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report” for pieces such as updates on Lance Armstrong’s doping allegations and a special report on ivory poaching in Tanzania.    

“You’ve got to learn early on not to be the funny guy. [Colbert will] cut you to ribbons otherwise,” Burnett said. 

Burnett said that with nearly three decades of experience in reporting, he becomes rather “evangelical” on NPR’s role in the evolving status of journalism. 

“Radio [is] a medium that works with the Internet generation because you can listen while doing something else. Plus, we transfer nicely up to digital, handheld devices,” Burnett said. “We cover the complicated, layered serious stuff that you need to know about to be an informed citizen. And I think people appreciate that it’s like ‘I’m gonna get my vegetables from NPR, I can get my dessert just about everywhere.’”

Printed on Tuesday, February 5, 2013 as: International reporter shares NPR experiences

Alexander Tsesis, a law professor at Loyola University, talks Tuesday at "Free Speech Dialogues," a panel about inflammatory speech.

Photo Credit: Tamir Kalifa | Daily Texan Staff

If we can’t speak what we think, there is no way to affect change and we effectively shut down the avenue for progress, said BB&T Corp. chair holder.

On Tuesday, the BB&T chair for the Study of Objectivism hosted a dialogue on the topic of inflammatory speech in the Graduate School of Business Building. At the event, they discussed diverse issues relating to the topic of free speech, including blasphemous, offensive and hateful speech.

Smith met with Nadine Strossen, former president of the American Civil Liberties Union, Alexander Tsesis, law professor at Loyola University and John Burnett, correspondent for National Public Radio.

Tsesis led the discussion by mentioning court cases that support the principle that hate speech is not protected by the constitution and that regulation is a viable option.

“Copyright violations, distributions of child pornography, obscenity and threats against the president are all content-based limitations on speech that are already in place,” Tsesis said.

He said instances of harmful hate speech have assisted to prolong and intensify racism in the American South and abroad in places such as Nazi Germany.

“The truth does not always win out in the market place of ideas and hate speech can be very powerful,” Tsesis said.
Strossen said that she held an opposite position on the topic of inflammatory speech.

“[In allowing censorship,] we give government officials unfettered powers. Every idea can be seen as an incitement, and the decisions [of government officials] will be arbitrary at best and discriminatory at worst,” she said.
Strossen said that she recognizes the claim that hate speech can be damaging, but she does not believe censorship is the answer.

“The government must remain neutral to the viewpoint of the speech,” Strossen said. “The solution is not to eliminate this speech but to answer it.”

Burnett spoke about his experiences with inflammatory speech and the Ku Klux Klan as a reporter.

“I have deep misgivings about being the medium through which these Ku Klux Klan protests were given attention,” Burnett said.

However, he said that in the end, he respects their right to free speech.

“We are all grown-ups, and we have the ability to handle these kinds of issues,” Burnett said.

Smith said she tried to involve speakers from numerous different viewpoints in order to make the event a dialogue rather than a debate.

“The term ‘debate’ seems to imply that there are only two positions and that there can be a winner or a loser,” Smith said. “In fact, these are very multifaceted and complex issues.”

Smith and the three panel members spoke about specific cases of free speech questions including Klan protests, flag burnings and recent anti-gay protests at military funerals.

“It is in the particulars that these issues get interesting,” Smith said. “The stakes are real around the world and in the neighborhood.”