John Burnett

As a roving NPR correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett's beat stretches across the U.S., and, sometimes, around the world. Currently, he is serving as NPR's Religion correspondent.

In December 2012, he returned from a five-month posting in Nairobi as the East Africa Correspondent. Normally, he focuses on the issues and people of the Southwest United States, providing investigative reports and traveling the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. His special reporting projects have included New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its aftermath, and many reports on the Drug War in the Americas. His reports are heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition.

Burnett has reported from more than 30 different countries since 1986. His 2008 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 an Edward R. Murrow Award for the accompanying website. 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 Uncivilized Beasts & Shameless Hellions: Travels with an NPR Correspondent was published by Rodale Press. In that year, he also served as a 2006 Ethics Fellow at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Florida.

In 2004, Burnett won a national Edward R. Murrow Award from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for investigative reporting for his story on the accidental U.S. bombing of an Iraqi village. In 2003, he was an embedded reporter with the First Marine Division during the invasion of Iraq. 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. Also 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 Sept. 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. He recalls happening upon Carlos Garcia, a Mexico City street musician who plays 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 detailed the emergence of Central America as a major drug smuggling region. But listeners may say that one of his best remembered reports is an audio postcard he filed while on assignment in Peshawar, Pakistan, about being at six-foot-seven the "tallest American at a Death to America" rally.

Prior to coming to NPR, Burnett was based in Guatemala City for United Press International covering the Central America civil wars. From 1979-1983, he was a general assignment reporter for various Texas newspapers.

Burnett graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor's degree in journalism.

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Ecstatic Voices
4:44 am
Sat October 19, 2013

Wynton Marsalis Goes Back To Church For 'Abyssinian Mass'

Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis performs his Abyssinian Mass in 2008.
Frank Stewart Jazz at Lincoln Center

Originally published on Sat October 19, 2013 8:01 am

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Around the Nation
2:43 pm
Fri October 18, 2013

Serpent Experts Try To Demystify Pentecostal Snake Handling

Pastor Jamie Coots holds a snake at Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name Church of Middlesboro, Ky.
NGO

Originally published on Fri October 18, 2013 8:09 pm

Two weeks ago, NPR reported on a group of Pentecostals in Appalachia who handle snakes in church to prove their faith in God. The story got us thinking: Why are the handlers bitten so rarely, and why are so few of those snakebites lethal?

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Ecstatic Voices
4:15 am
Tue October 15, 2013

Before Churches Had Songbooks, There Was 'Lined-Out' Gospel

Church elder Elwood Cornett preaches at a recent reunion of Old Regular Baptists. Brother Don Pratt is seated behind him in a blue shirt and tie.
Cindy Johnston NPR

Originally published on Mon October 28, 2013 8:12 am

Deep in the hills of Appalachia, there's a mournful, beautiful style of church music that hasn't changed since the 18th century.

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Religion
3:35 pm
Fri October 4, 2013

Snake-Handling Preachers Open Up About 'Takin' Up Serpents'

Andrew Hamblin preaches while holding a snake above his head, LaFollette, Tenn.
Ciaran Flannery NGT

Snake handlers dwell at the edge of the spiritual frontier — a community of people who are willing to die for their faith three times a week in church. Members of the Pentecostal Holiness Church take up venomous serpents to prove their faith in God. The practice is still widespread in Appalachia, though mostly hidden.

Pastor Jamie Coots warns about the scent in the snake room behind his house in Middlesboro, Ky.

Read more
Food
2:12 pm
Mon September 2, 2013

Deep-Fry Chefs Keep It Hot And Poppin' In Texas

We had to do it! A fried mic.
John Burnett NPR

Originally published on Mon September 2, 2013 5:11 pm

Every year, the State Fair of Texas awards the most original food that is battered and plunged into a vat of boiling oil.

And it gets weirder every year. The obvious choices came and went in previous competitions — concoctions such as fried ice cream, fried cookie dough and chicken-fried bacon. Now, every year, the same cooks have to top themselves, which is not easy.

Last year, Butch Benavides — a Mexican food restaurateur turned fry-master — won a trophy for his fried bacon cinnamon roll on a stick.

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Religion
3:04 pm
Sun September 1, 2013

Cowboy Church: With Rodeo Arena, They 'Do Church Different'

A Western motif greets visitors to the Cowboy Church of Ellis County, in Waxahachie, Texas. About 1,700 people attend the church on Sundays.
Matt Slocum AP

Originally published on Sun September 1, 2013 6:36 pm

It's Sunday morning at the Cowboy Church of Santa Fe County, N.M. You know you're there because of the chuck wagon parked by the highway.

You couldn't find a more nonreligious-looking building. The church is a charmless metal warehouse on a concrete slab. Inside, the altar is decorated like a set from a 1950s western — complete with saddles, hats, boots, a lasso and wagon wheel.

The band has just kicked off with "I Think God Must Be a Cowboy at Heart," and about 30 people in folding chairs are tapping their feet.

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Ecstatic Voices
2:33 pm
Tue August 13, 2013

Life As Prayer: The Singing Nuns Of Ann Arbor

Sister Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz (right), vicaress general and music director for Dominican Sisters of Mary. On the group's new album, she plays organ and composed three selections.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Tue August 13, 2013 4:31 pm

In the cloistered world of classical music recordings, there is great interest in choral music by Catholic nuns these days. In the past year, two separate albums by a group of monastic nuns shot to the top of the classical charts.

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Religion
1:46 pm
Wed July 31, 2013

Should Military Chaplains Have To Believe In God?

There has been a recent push for humanist chaplains in the United States military. Around 13,000 active service members are atheist or agnostic. Here, U.S. Army soldiers bow their heads in prayer during Easter sunrise service at Camp Liberty in Iraq, in 2009.
Marko Drobnjakovic AP

Originally published on Wed July 31, 2013 5:48 pm

The United States military chaplaincy program has a proud heritage that stretches all the way back to the Continental Army during the American Revolution.

"They are rabbis, ministers, imams and priests who serve our nation's heroes and their families as committed members of the U.S. Army," according to one video produced by the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps.

But are they ready for an atheist chaplain?

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Music News
1:38 pm
Mon July 15, 2013

Shout Bands Stir Up Tubular Fervor In Charlotte

Cedric Mangum (left) leads the shout band as a junior member looks on.
Daniel Coston for NPR

Originally published on Fri August 2, 2013 11:42 am

For the next year, NPR will take a musical journey across America, which is one of the most religiously diverse countries on earth. We want to discover and celebrate the many ways in which people make spiritual music — individually and collectively, inside and outside houses of worship.

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News
10:49 pm
Fri July 12, 2013

Abortion Rights Activists Plan Challenge To Texas Measure

Abortion rights opponents, dressed in blue, and supporters, wearing orange, rally in the state Capitol rotunda Friday before the vote on a set of sweeping abortion restrictions.
Tamir Kalifa AP

Originally published on Sat July 13, 2013 11:31 am

In a major victory for the anti-abortion movement, the Texas state Senate passed a sweeping bill early Saturday that has become a flashpoint in the national abortion debate. Gov. Rick Perry is expected to sign it in short order.

But the fight is not over. Abortion rights supporters say that the new law attempts to overturn Roe vs. Wade in Texas, and that's why they plan to take their fight to the courts.

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Around the Nation
8:47 am
Mon July 8, 2013

Why Catastrophic Airline Crashes Have Become More Survivable

National Transportation Safety Board officials handed out this photo of the burnt shell of Asiana Flight 214 during their first assessment of the crash. Two people died Saturday and scores more were injured.
AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Mon July 8, 2013 11:06 am

The Boeing 777 that crash-landed in San Francisco has one of the best safety records in the industry. In addition to the plane's solid reputation, many other factors helped save lives in Saturday's crash — from fire-rescue training to aircraft design.

If you look at pictures of the gutted, charred fuselage of Flight 214, you'd wonder how anybody made it out alive. All but two of the 307 passengers and crew survived. Both people killed were teenage girls from China.

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Law
2:17 pm
Fri June 28, 2013

Wedding Vendors That Refuse Gay Customers Often Lose In Court

Originally published on Fri June 28, 2013 7:22 pm

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

With the Supreme Court's landmark decisions on gay marriage cases earlier this week, the country has shifted further toward acceptance of same-sex matrimony.

Obviously, there are many Americans who are not on board with that. So, what happens when a private businessperson, because of religious convictions, refuses to provide services for a gay wedding?

Here's NPR's John Burnett.

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Around the Nation
2:59 pm
Thu June 27, 2013

Texas Gov. Calls Special Session, Reigniting Abortion Debate

Originally published on Thu June 27, 2013 3:44 pm

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

The battle over a new abortion bill in Texas will resume now that Governor Rick Perry has called a second special legislative session. It's scheduled to begin on Monday. This past Tuesday night, an audience far beyond Texas watched as a Democratic state senator filibustered an anti-abortion bill for 12 hours. When Republicans cut her off, spectators jeered and the chamber erupted in pandemonium.

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Around the Nation
6:17 pm
Thu April 25, 2013

Controversy Brews Over Church's Hallucinogenic Tea Ritual

Ayahuasca brew used in South and Central America.
Nha Flickr

A small church in Santa Fe, N.M., has grown up around a unique sacrament. Twice a month, the congregation meets in a ritualized setting to drink Brazilian huasca tea, which has psychoactive properties said to produce a trance-like state.

The Supreme Court confirmed the UDV church's right to exist in 2006. The church doesn't seek new members and prefers to keep a low profile. It did, however, agree for the first time to open up to a journalist.

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Around the Nation
3:21 am
Sat April 20, 2013

Two Decades Later, Some Branch Davidians Still Believe

Flames engulf the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, on April 20, 1993. A 51-day standoff at the compound ended in a fire and the deaths of about 80 sect members, including two dozen children.
Susan Weems AP

Originally published on Mon October 28, 2013 3:15 pm

Twenty years ago, federal agents clashed with David Koresh's Branch Davidian community near Waco, Texas. The standoff ended with a raid and fire that killed some 80 people. It's remembered as one of the darkest chapters in American law enforcement history.

Two decades later, some of the Branch Davidians who survived the raid are still believers, while a new church group has moved onto the land.

The Raid

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Around the Nation
4:06 pm
Thu April 18, 2013

Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion 'A Nightmare Scenario'

Originally published on Thu April 18, 2013 8:26 pm

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The search and rescue operation is still underway in the town of West, Texas, the scene of that devastating fertilizer plant explosion last night. Crews are going through the wreckage of some 75 homes and other buildings, many of them leveled in the blast.

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U.S.
10:22 am
Thu April 18, 2013

Search And Rescue Ongoing After Texas Plant Explosion

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

We're learning more about last night's fire in the Texas town of West. The fire started in a fertilizer plant, and a father in a vehicle nearby was taking video of the flames when the plant exploded.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Are you OK?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You OK?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yeah. I can't hear.

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Religion
2:42 am
Mon April 15, 2013

Evangelicals Try To Soften Hearts On Overhauling Immigration

Originally published on Mon April 15, 2013 11:28 am

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Evangelical Christians in the United States are raising their voices in support of immigration overhaul. Church leaders were largely mute during the earlier contentious debates over how to fix the nation's immigration laws, but now they are speaking out, telling conservative Christians and their friends in Congress that it's OK to embrace compassionate solutions. Here's NPR's John Burnett.

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Religion
3:42 pm
Fri March 29, 2013

Thousands Trek To New Mexico Chapel On Good Friday

Students playing the roles of Roman soldiers lead a man playing the role of Jesus during a re-enactment of the Stations of the Cross at the Sanctuary of Chimayo in New Mexico on Thursday.
Brian Snyder Reuters/Landov

Originally published on Tue April 2, 2013 11:09 am

Driving in northern New Mexico requires special caution on Good Friday. Tens of thousands of people — some walking all night — are converging on the village of Chimayo to pray inside a 200-year-old chapel before a carved wooden image of Jesus.

As it does every year, the highway department has put out portable toilets, orange barriers, and signs warning motorists of "Santuario walkers."

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The Papal Succession
3:26 am
Thu March 14, 2013

The Life And Career Of Pope Francis

Originally published on Thu March 14, 2013 7:34 am

Newly minted Pope Francis, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, was known for his humility, for standing with the poor, and for his staunch conservatism on church teachings. With no experience in Vatican administration, the strength of this first Jesuit pope is thought to be his intellectual vigor and his pastoral skills.

Religion
1:29 pm
Sun February 10, 2013

As Islam Grows, U.S. Imams In Short Supply

Muslims pray during a special Eid ul-Fitr morning prayer at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Aug. 30, 2011, in Los Angeles.
Kevork Djansezian Getty Images

Originally published on Sun February 10, 2013 2:58 pm

Islam in America is growing exponentially. From 2000 to 2010, the number of mosques in the United States jumped 74 percent.

Today, there are more than 2,100 American mosques but they have a challenge: There aren't enough imams, or spiritual leaders, to go around.

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Religion
3:17 pm
Fri February 1, 2013

L.A. Cardinal Removed From Position For Role In Sex Abuse Scandal

Originally published on Fri February 1, 2013 5:17 pm

The Los Angeles Archbishop, Jose Gomez, has removed retired Cardinal Roger Mahony in the wake of revelations about how the Cardinal handled priest sex abuse cases. Mahony will be relieved of his remaining public duties.

World
12:46 pm
Fri January 11, 2013

Juarez Priest Finds 'Hand Of God In The Midst Of Mayhem'

Father Kevin Mullins' parish, the Comunidad Catolica de Corpus Christi near Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, is located at the epicenter of the country's drug cartel war. After years of violence, murders are down and the city's shuttered shops and cafes are beginning to reopen.
Christ Chavez For NPR

Originally published on Fri January 11, 2013 4:11 pm

Father Kevin Mullins steers his old Chevy pickup up a steep road to a hilltop dominated by a large statue of the virgin. She has a commanding view of this troubled corner of Christendom.

Here, the states of Texas, New Mexico and and Chihuahua, Mexico, intersect amid barren hills freckled with ocotillo plants and greasewood.

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Shootings In Newtown, Conn.
3:55 pm
Wed December 19, 2012

In Faith, Finding Answers To 'The Mystery Of Evil'

People gather for a prayer vigil at St. Rose Church in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14. In the aftermath of such tragedies, many people ask how a benevolent God and suffering can coexist.
Emmanuel Dunand Getty Images

Originally published on Wed December 19, 2012 4:47 pm

When a human tragedy occurs on the scale of the Newtown shootings, clergy are invariably asked an ancient question: If God is all-knowing, all-powerful and benevolent, why does he allow such misfortunes?

There's even a word for reconciling this paradox: theodicy, or attempting to justify God's goodness despite the existence of evil and suffering.

A World Both Beautiful And Shattered

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The Two-Way
10:16 am
Thu December 13, 2012

From A Life Of Crime To Designing Jewelry, All In A Nairobi Slum

Zakale Creations is a jewelry-designing operation that employs 30 young people who were previously involved in crime. The Nairobi-based operation is the brainchild of John Mucheru, himself a former mugger.
John Burnett/NPR

After covering East Africa for five months, a profound problem I encountered in every country was what will happen to the continent's exploding cities.

The U.N. predicts that by 2040, six in 10 Africans will live in cities — an estimated 1 billion people. One of the pressing questions for African leaders is how to occupy all the idle young men who turn to crime because there are no jobs.

In Nairobi's Huruma slum, I came across a point of light — one man's attempt to take in thieves and prostitutes and give them honest work, of all things, making jewelry.

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Movies
4:55 am
Tue December 4, 2012

Nairobi Film Depicts Crime And The City

Originally published on Tue December 4, 2012 8:02 am

For the first time, Kenya has a film in the hunt for an Academy Award for best foreign language film. Nairobi Half Life chronicles a young man's misbegotten migration from a rural village to the crime-ridden capital. The surprise hit film is helping Kenyans better understand Nairobi's crime culture.

Africa
1:21 pm
Mon December 3, 2012

A Battle For The Stolen Childhoods Of Kenyan Girls

A schoolgirl participates in a lesson in Kilifi, about 30 miles northeast of Mombasa on Kenya's Swahili Coast, in 2010.
Tony Karumba AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Mon December 3, 2012 4:08 pm

Life can be especially cruel for girls growing up on Kenya's Swahili Coast. Some families sell their daughters to earn the bride price, while others encourage them to become child prostitutes for tourists. The girls drop out of school and have babies, and their childhoods are stolen. Now, a coalition of educators, religious and traditional leaders is fighting back.

Thirteen teenage girls — all with babies on their laps — are gathered around a table in the town hall of Msabaha village, not far from the beach resort of Malindi.

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Food
3:06 pm
Sun December 2, 2012

Somali Chef Seizes The Chance To Return Home

London-raised Ahmed Jama won't give up on Mogadishu, Somalia, even though his restaurants have been attacked by suicide bombers more than once. In fact, he's leading the city's cultural revival, one dish at a time, by offering residents and visitors a taste of authentic Somali cuisine and hospitality. (This piece initially aired Nov. 26, 2012, on Morning Edition.)

Africa
8:48 am
Fri November 30, 2012

Tanzania's Albinos Face Constant Threat Of Attack

Angel Salvatory, 17, buys cloth at a market in Kabanga village in Tanzania. Albinos living in a nearby protection center are allowed to go to the local market as long as they travel in a group for their own safety.
Jacquelyn Martin for NPR

Originally published on Fri November 30, 2012 4:44 pm

Life is hard for albinos throughout Africa, but especially in the East African nation of Tanzania. At best, they face raw prejudice; at worst, they are hunted for their flesh, the results of superstitious beliefs.

Albino killings have been reported in a dozen African countries from South Africa to Kenya, but they are worse in Tanzania than anywhere else.

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The Salt
3:16 am
Mon November 26, 2012

At His Own Risk, Somali Chef Creates Gourmet Haven In War-Weary Mogadishu

Somali chef Ahmed Jama holds up freshly caught spiny lobsters he's about to cook in one of his restaurants in Mogadishu.
John Burnett NPR

Originally published on Mon November 26, 2012 2:48 pm

Ahmed Jama was running a successful Somali cafe in southwest London when he decided it was time to go home. Against the urgent advice of friends, he returned to Mogadishu three years ago and started cooking.

Jama epitomizes the spirit of rebirth in the city that has been brutalized by 21 years of civil war. As expatriates return to take their homeland back from warlords, terrorists and looters, Jama is doing his part to revive Mogadishu one prawn at a time.

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