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Reporter Tells Stories of 'Uncivilized Beasts'

LYNN NEARY, host:

For almost 30 years, John Burnett has been telling stories. An NPR correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John has truly earned the title roving reporter.

(Soundbite of previous NPR broadcast)

JOHN BURNETT: I'm John Burnett in Cuarto Cienegas, Mexico.

(Soundbite of previous NPR broadcast)

John Burnett, NPR News, New Orleans.

(Soundbite of previous NPR broadcast)

NEAL CONAN: Also with us is NPR's John Burnett, who joins us on his satellite telephone from Peshawar in Pakistan. And, John...

(Soundbite of previous NPR broadcast)

BURNETT: I'm John Burnett, NPR News in Kukes, Albania.

NEARY: John Burnett has reported from across the United States and from 25 different countries. He's covered wars, politics, Hurricane Katrina, and he has met an amazing array of characters.

John Burnett has written a book about his experiences. It's called Uncivilized Beasts and Shameless Hellions: Travels with an NPR Correspondent. And he joins us now. Good to talk with you, John.

BURNETT: Hi, Lynn.

NEARY: John, you had taken your microphone to so many places in the world, but you begin and end your book with Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans. And before I ask you about that, let's hear some tape from that time.

(Soundbite of previous NPR broadcast)

Unidentified Man: We have four people dying in here. I could save one man right down the street, down there. They got elderly people that's old...

NEARY: In Katrina, what was the dilemma there for you as a journalist?

BURNETT: Well, I think both for myself and Anne Hawke, who was a producer that I worked with day after day, in many cases we were first responders. We were there as people were coming out of these flooded neighborhoods; we were the first people they saw. And we didn't have food, we didn't have water, we didn't have medical care. All we could do was take their testimony and promise to get the word out.

NEARY: Your work of course, as we've already mentioned, has taken you all over the world: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan. One piece that I remember vividly was the anti-American rally in Peshawar, Pakistan. Now we have some tape of that rally first. Let's listen to that.

(Soundbite of previous NPR broadcast)

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Group: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language)

NEARY: Now your reporting on that rally kind of punched the hole in the way people might think about an anti-American rally. Tell us about that.

BURNETT: Well, I ended up doing a reporter's postcard about being the tallest American at a Death to America rally, because I'm 6'7" and was really sticking out that day.

And then this young Muslim student came over and he held a sign over my head that said in English, Americans are uncivilized beasts and shameless hellions. And so I asked the student to take his sign down, I didn't want it over my head. And then I said, well, that's a really cool sign. Would you give to me as a gift?

And so he gave it to me and he rolled it up and he said you are our friend, you are our brother. And so the reason that's the title of the book is because in some ways it shows you this complexity that is often present in huge, breaking stories which sometimes isn't conveyed by the sort of black and white pictures we get.

NEARY: You also write about being embedded with the military during the invasion of Iraq. And you have some decidedly mixed feelings about that experience, I think.

BURNETT: I do. We shouldn't kid ourselves. The military will embrace you when you are part of the team. And so when journalists within their midst write negative things, as one Army unit told a Newsweek reporter, this unit is your mother and you don't write blankety-blank about your mother.

NEARY: I should make it clear also that in this book not all of the stories are about war and disasters. Some of the most compelling stories are about some of the amazing people that you've met. One in particular, a man in Mexico City who made wonderful music with a leaf.

(Soundbite of music)

BURNETT: That's Carlos Garcia, who plays a leaf of ivy. And he's a one-armed street musician who was playing in the Zocalo in Central Mexico. And I was on my way to another story when this strange sound was coming out of this portico in front of this colonial building. And I couldn't figure it out, and so I just followed the sound - and there was Carlos.

NEARY: And the way the story evolved, one of his recordings was included on a CD with the Kronos Quartet.

(Soundbite of music)

BURNETT: Carlos was featured, and he was famous for a while. I got more response out of that than much of what I've done over the past 20 years with NPR.

NEARY: You know, at the beginning of the book, John, you say journalism is no longer work for you; it's an addiction.

BURNETT: Well, it mainly stems from the fact that I've always loved to tell stories. But I think the longer I stay in this business and the more I get to travel particularly in countries where repressive governments are in control, you see the value of the press. I know this, you know, this is all stuff that you learn in, you know, the first week in government class, but it is so profoundly true that a free and healthy press is one of the measurements of a free and healthy society.

NEARY: Well, thanks so much, John. I enjoyed reading your book.

BURNETT: Thanks, Lynn.

NEARY: NPR's John Burnett. His new book is Uncivilized Beasts and Shameless Hellions: Travels with an NPR Correspondent.

(Soundbite of music featuring Carlos Garcia)

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.