Sunday , July 21 2024
"And yes, this was a tough story, but I wouldn't trade the Katrina experience for anything in my career." - John Burnett

Interview With John Burnett, Author of Uncivilized Beasts and Shameless Hellions: Travels with an NPR Correspondent – Part 2

This is the second part of a two-part interview.

I promised that for this part I would share the story about the title of  Uncivilized Beasts and Shameless Hellions. I am going to let John Burnett tell it in his own words. It comes at the start of a chapter on Pakistan. He describes a protest at which he, at 6'7", is the tallest person, where his fixer has told him to tell people he’s Canadian, such is the anti-American sentiment.

While there Burnett notices something:

I noticed then that a pudgy, flush-faced student had hoisted a homemade sign directly over my head that read “Americans Are Uncivilized Beasts and Shameless Hellions.” It was printed in English, no doubt for the benefit of CNN.
“Hasan, tell this man to take his sign down,” I said.
“Just ignore it, John.”
“It makes me nervous.”
“No one will hurt you. It’s okay.”
I stared at the student and he stared back at me, expressionless.
“Then tell him I really like his sign and I’d like to have it,” I continued.
“What?” Hasan glanced at me.
“Ask him if he will give it to me as a gift.”
I’ll never completely understand why the student complied. Perhaps he wanted to show me he was neither beast nor hellion like my countrymen, or maybe he thought I needed to meditate further on his message. For whatever reason, he rolled up the posterboard and handed it to me with a smile.
And then he said, “You are our brother, no problem.” He extended his hand to shake mine. “You are our brother, no problem.”
“I am your brother?” I asked.
“Yes, you are our brother,” he repeated.
Dumbstruck, I wanted to visit further and find out why he was so friendly, but a crowd had gathered around us – never a good idea an emotional rally…”
“Hasan, what just happened back there?” I asked.
“Muslims hate U.S. foreign policy,” he explained patiently, but people of the Northwest Frontier Province are very courteous to foreigners. We are Pashtuns. Our tradition is hospitality.”

One last thought before we continue the interview: Burnett ends his introduction by quoting the same quote from Pete Hamill I used in an analysis of journalism over the last 100 years ago, that being the important job journalists play: "The reporter is the member of the tribe who is sent to the back of the cave to find out what's there. The report must be accurate. If there's a rabbit hiding in the darkness it cannot be transformed into a dragon." 

Scott: You wrote some sentences that made me laugh out loud, like this one about the army spokesman mad at you call for describing a man as "paunchy”: "I learned an important lesson that day. You can call a Latin American strongman a murderer; just don't slight his vanity.” Did such things make you laugh at the time or only later?

John: Oh, I always revel in the humor of my stories at the time, and for years later. I collect stories like this. That's why I wrote this book. Humor keeps me sane on a dark and dangerous story.

Scott: My favorite quote is this one, though, from the chapter about Pakistan: "I've stuck out in crowds all my life, but nothing compares to being the tallest American at a Death to America rally." How surreal was that?

John: It was uncomfortable in the extreme. I was glad when Hasan said it was time to go.

Scott: You describe hurricanes this way: “I used to love hurricanes… until Katrina. Hurricanes are the crystal meth of journalism. There's nothing like racing toward a big storm on a crowded highway while the opposite lanes are gridlocked with people trying to get out.” Can you elaborate?

John: When an approaching hurricane threatens a coastal city, we get paid to race into the eye of the storm when everyone else is fleeing from it. I've never convinced my worried mother why I love that sensation, but I do. Even after a "normal" hurricane, things always come a bit unglued—peoples' lives are upended, the cops often can't control their territory, normal life grinds to a halt, traffic lights are out, there's no one to tell you where you can and can't go. Destruction and debris may be everywhere.
None of this is a big deal in a developing country, where city life may be pretty raw in the best of times. But America is all about control and safety and rules and order. A hurricane brings about an existential pause in the life of a community. And we get to be there.

Scott: In your chapter about Hurricane Katrina, you wrote: "I experience the first wave of uselessness that will return again and again all week. Without a rescue boat, food, water, or helpful information, all we can do is take testimonies and promise to get the word out." Have you talked to other journalists about this feeling to see if that was a common sentiment? Was this one of the more difficult stories you have ever covered?

John: Yes, I've heard from other journalists who also questioned what they were doing, particularly if they had a boat to use for shooting pictures and not for rescue. And yes, this was a tough story, but I wouldn't trade the Katrina experience for anything in my career.

Scott: You were a key player in what was, to me, the most telling, memorable exchange during the Katrina coverage: The NPR interview with Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff where he was clearly clueless that anyone was at the New Orleans Convention Center. What was that like, letting the world – and him – know that approximately 15,000 people were at the convention center? And I'm going to use the f word (feel): How did it feel when you realized that supplies were being rushed to the convention center because of your report? Did that help assuage the survivor's guilt you and other reporters were probably dealing with?

John: Anne Hawke and I felt really great when our editor told us the (government) was choppering in supplies to the wretched masses at the convention center. That's one of the reasons we do this job—to get the word out, to affect change, to make things better. Frankly, journalists rarely do change the course of events, so it feels good when it happens.

Thanks again to John Burnett for doing this interview. I hounded him for months to get it and he didn’t seem to mind my persistence at all.

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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