Wednesday , July 24 2024
"The Pentagon implicitly understood what happens when journalists are inserted into war-fighting units. People who share adversity grow closer."

Interview With John Burnett, Author of Uncivilized Beasts and Shameless Hellions: Travels with an NPR Correspondent – Part 1

This is the first part of a two-part interview

I have long been a fan of public radio, especially National Public Radio. I was excited last year at the opportunity to interview the author of a book in which she interviewed some of my favorite public radio personalities. Around the same time I received a copy of a book by a correspondent, John Burnett, whose name I instantly recognized because he has covered Iraq, Katrina and other issues.

There is something somewhat magical about hearing good programming on the radio. Burnett describes it this way:

Radio is cool. There is something that happens when voice and natural sound come together to transport listeners out of their surroundings. It only happens with radio. NPR calls it “the driveway moment” – when people sit in the car to wait until the story is over….
After deadline, reporters don’t talk about the who, what, when, where, why and when. We talk about the sixth W, the whoa – bizarre encounters, miserable journeys, horrible hotels, great fixers, dangerous highways, gruesome dead people, gruesome live people, and unsung heroes. This book is my attempt to make sense of it all, to sort through the beasts and the hellions.

As you might guess there is a story behind the title of his book, Uncivilized Beasts and Shameless Hellions: Travels with an NPR Correspondent, but I’ll save that for the second part, along with the questions and answers regarding the chapter about Hurricane Katrina.

One reason I’m making this interview into two parts is that Burnett is not just a reporter covering big stories but he’s also quite good at analyzing what has happened to the news media:

The press has metamorphosed from a corps – connoting a sense of order and belonging – into what many people see as a giant octopus: massive, fleshy, many tentacled, and befogged in its own ink. It strikes me that oftentimes the more of us there are, the more likely we are to get it wrong.

This, as he eloquently describes, was the case in Iraq and Katrina, to name two of the more visible recent examples.

I started my interview by asking him about Iraq, specifically about the embedding project.

Scott: Looking back on the embedded journalist experience do you think it was a success for both the military and the media, or just for the military?  I ask because of a point you speak of clearly and eloquently on page 41 where you wrote:

The Pentagon implicitly understood what happens when journalists are inserted into war-fighting units. People who share adversity grow closer. We would sleep in the sand together, eat bad food together, and ride out sandstorms together. David Wood, the veteran national security correspondent for Newhouse News, cautions new combat reporters that the hardest thing about covering war is not the danger of incoming mortar rounds: 'It's remembering at all times that you're not one of them.'

Scott: Was that hard to remember at times?

John: It was a mutually beneficial arrangement. The Pentagon got all the coverage it wanted and we got intimate access to the biggest story in the world. Most of the media were happy. The defense department accommodated nearly everyone – 600 in all. That's a lot of journalists. But the whole thing had a triumphalist atmosphere to it— there was never any question that the invasion would be successful. It wasn't if, but when.
The thing you need to remember is that the entire embed adventure was a sideshow to the bigger story – how do we win the peace? Journalists were so revved up, at the time, covering the invasion that not enough of us were questioning whether the war planners had a plan to pacify and run the country after Saddam fell, which clearly they did not.

Scott:You spoke clearly on page 56 about your regret after you reported a scoop which turned out to inaccurate information.
You wrote:

The mistake was inexcusable. I felt professionally humiliated. I had given in to the temptation of 24-hours news cycles… NPR reported the denial and the war raced forward. Most people forgot about it, but not me. The misbegotten scoop haunted me. I'd played directly into the wishful thinking of a command that desperately wanted to find chemical weapons in order to justify the invasion.

I think it is difficult for non-journalists to understand why good, experienced, skilled reporters like yourself violate standard journalism rules in the rush for a good scoop. Can you speak to how this happens? Do you think this happens more during a war?

John: I put a lot of stock in the fact that I was talking to a brigadier general, and that he seemed to have so many specifics about the WMD scoop. I was with another veteran combat reporter at the time, and he told me if he were in my shoes he'd run with it I did. I should have waited.

Mistakes will always happen in war coverage. Our job is to correct them and move on. Information is unverified, facts can be hazy, the outcomes of operations unclear, reports inaccurate. There's an old saying that truth is the first casualty during war.

Scott: I found the chapter about Guatemala fascinating, especially this passage: "We looked forward to Holy Week, when young men went door-to-door, demanding tips to beat up a dummy Judas. How much do they charge?

John: Hah! That's not in my notes. A few centavos probably. They were somewhat menacing youngsters… sort of trick or treating. If we didn't pay them something we suspected the consequence would be mischief or mayhem.

Scott: Why do you think it is that Guatamela is not covered more extensively by the media?

John: There's not a compelling storyline out of Guatemala currently. The 36-year insurgency is over. Guatemala doesn't have the drug violence that Mexico does, though Guatemala's drug mafias are growing. It doesn't have the political violence that Colombia does, though evidence of old horrors keeps surfacing. It doesn't have a telegenic Castro wannabe for president who calls Bush a devil…like Venezuela does.

Guatemala still has lots of problems, but today it is more typical of a poor, underdeveloped Latin American country than a country in crisis. I, for one, continue to report from there as often as possible because it is a fascinating place ethnically, historically, and environmentally, whose scenery is beautiful and whose people are warm-hearted.

Scott: The chapter on Pakistan, especially the section about the idea of honor killings, reminded me of the book Revenge: A Story of Hope. Have you read it? I imagine it'd be hard to not feel and express outrage at the idea of killing someone innocent out of honor – was that a challenge?

John: I haven't read it. I thought honor killings involved other people, savage, uncivilized people, certainly not my own fixer, of whom I was so fond. It is truly hard for someone from our culture to understand them. I wished I'd had more time to delve into this, but it wasn't the lead story at the time.

The second part will be published in about four days.

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been working in mental health for the last ten years. He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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