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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The Salt
6:33 am
Sun August 12, 2012

On The Road To Olympic Gold, Kenyan Marathoners Fuel Up On Carbs

Every day at 9 a.m. sharp in Iten, Kenya, 200 or so runners train on the dirt roads surrounding the town.
John Burnett NPR

Originally published on Mon October 22, 2012 9:38 am

For a couple of days last month, I ate the same foods as some of the fastest people on the planet — the Kenyans.

I stayed at the same hotel and ate in the same dining room as the Kenya Olympic Marathon team while working on a radio story about how this impoverished nation produces some of the best endurance runners in the world.

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Africa
3:55 am
Sat August 4, 2012

Kenya's Youngest 'Outcasts' Emerge From Shadows

Alice Njeri found work, and her 10-year-old son Mike — who is physically and mentally disabled — received therapy and other services at a community center in Maai Mahiu, outside Nairobi, Kenya.
John Burnett NPR

Originally published on Sat August 4, 2012 4:07 pm

Kenyan Alice Njeri knew by the fourth month that something was terribly wrong with her infant son, Mike. When the baby boy was in the hospital recovering from a case of pneumonia, the doctors told Njeri that he was paralyzed on his left side and mentally disabled.

It appeared that Mike would grow up severely disabled in a country that shunned children with disabilities as curses from God.

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London 2012: The Summer Olympics
4:19 am
Sat July 28, 2012

Kenyan Runners Dash To Olympic Gold, And Wealth

Every day at 9 a.m. sharp in Iten, Kenya, 200 or so runners — most of them unknowns hoping to become champions — train on the dirt roads surrounding the town.
John Burnett NPR

Originally published on Sat July 28, 2012 6:09 pm

The long- and middle-distance runners to watch during the London Olympics are from Kenya, a country with a rich tradition of producing elite track athletes. The country won 14 medals four years ago in the Beijing Olympics.

Many of the world's best marathoners have come from a highland region above the Great Rift Valley. There, the famed town of Iten produces some of the fastest humans on Earth.

'I Want To Be Rich'

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Africa
12:27 pm
Mon July 16, 2012

Kenya's Free Schools Bring A Torrent Of Students

Kenya's attempt at universal education faces multiple challenges. In many rural areas, families want their kids to work during the day. At this school in central Kenya, Samburu kids who herd the family livestock are now taking classes in the evening.
Tony Karumba AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Mon July 16, 2012 4:22 pm

Parents of U.S. students often complain about things like too many standardized tests or unhealthful school lunches. Kenya wishes it had such problems.

Kenya dropped or greatly reduced fees at public schools nearly a decade ago in an effort to make education available to all children. On one level, it's been a success — school attendance has soared. Yet this has also exacerbated chronic problems that include shortages of qualified teachers, books, desks and just about every other basic need.

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U.S.
4:08 am
Sun July 8, 2012

Texas Seeks New Water Supplies Amid Drought

Receding water at Lake Travis near Austin, Texas, has the state concerned about its water supply. In 2011, Lake Travis had the lowest inflow since it was created about 70 years ago.
Joshua Lott Reuters/Landov

Originally published on Sun July 8, 2012 12:59 pm

The punishing seven-year drought of the 1950s in Texas brought about the modern era of water planning. But the drought of 2011 was the hottest, driest 12 months on record there.

Though only a handful of towns saw their water sources dry up last summer, it got so bad that cities, industries and farmers began to think the unthinkable: Would they run out of water?

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U.S.
4:08 am
Sat July 7, 2012

How One Drought Changed Texas Agriculture Forever

Siblings Charles Hagood and Nancy Hagood Nunns grew up in Junction, Texas, in the 1950s. Charles says the drought drove ranchers to find other types of work.
Michael O'Brien Michael O'Brien

Originally published on Wed November 6, 2013 1:40 pm

In Texas, there is still the drought against which all other droughts are measured: the seven-year dry spell in the 1950s. It was so devastating that agriculture losses exceeded those of the Dust Bowl years, and so momentous that it kicked off the modern era of water planning in Texas.

From 1950 to 1957, the sky dried up and the rain refused to fall. Every day, Texans scanned the pale-blue heavens for rainclouds, but year after year they never came.

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Around the Nation
4:03 am
Sat June 23, 2012

On This Stage, Jesus Is A Robber; The Devil's A Rapist

David Sonnier Jr., from Jeanerette, La., plays the Devil in Angola Prison's production of The Life of Jesus Christ. He was convicted of aggravated rape and is serving a life sentence.
Deborah Luster for NPR

Originally published on Sat June 23, 2012 9:07 am

There are more than 5,300 inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Nearly 4,000 of them are serving life without parole. Last month, the Angola Prison Drama Club staged a play unlike any other in the prison's experience.

The Life of Jesus Christ featured 70 inmates, men and women acting together for the first time — in costume, with a real camel, performing for the general public. For the untrained actors, this production held special meaning as they saw pieces of their own lives revealed in the characters they played.

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Latin America
1:41 pm
Fri June 8, 2012

Mexicans Want New Approach To Bloody Drug War

A Mexican federal policeman guards the area where dozens of bodies, some of them mutilated, were found on a highway outside the northern Mexican city of Monterrey on May 13. The murders were one of the latest episodes in Mexico's brutal and unrelenting drug war.
Christian Palma AP

Originally published on Fri June 8, 2012 4:59 pm

Second of two parts

Mexicans select a new president on July 1, and they want a leader who can reduce the rampant violence in their country. Warring drug cartels have killed more than 50,000 people in the past 5 1/2 years, while thousands have disappeared and some cities have been turned into lawless zones.

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Latin America
2:11 pm
Thu June 7, 2012

Mexico's Once Dominant Party Poised For A Comeback

Mexican presidential front-runner Enrique Pena Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, waves to the crowds during a campaign stop in the northern border city of Tijuana, Mexico, on June 3. The once dominant PRI, out of power for the past 12 years, looks likely to make a comeback.
Alex Cossio AP

Originally published on Thu June 7, 2012 3:54 pm

First of two parts

As Mexico approaches its election day on July 1, polls indicate the candidate for the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, is well ahead and appears likely to return his party to power.

The PRI governed Mexico for seven decades until 2000, when it was tossed out by an electorate tired of a corrupt political machine. Now, discontent with the current leadership and the rampant drug-related violence has created an opening for the PRI to come back. Still, some Mexicans are queasy about the prospect of the party's resurgence.

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Latin America
11:03 am
Wed May 9, 2012

Mexican Crime Reporters Risk Becoming The Story

A woman lights a candle during a tribute to slain Mexican journalists at the Monument of Independence in Mexico City on May 5. The vigil took place to protest violence against the press after the brutal murders of four journalists in Veracruz state.
Sashenka Gutierrez EPA/Landov

Originally published on Thu May 10, 2012 7:37 am

Mexico is reeling from another round of brutal murders of journalists. Four journalists and photographers who covered the police beat have been killed in eastern Mexico's crime-ridden state of Veracruz.

There's a new call for the federal government to take measures to protect journalists in a country where more and more reporters censor themselves out of fear.

The ceremony to remember the most recent killings took place last weekend in Mexico City on the steps of the Monument of Independence between statues depicting peace and law.

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Law
2:15 pm
Tue April 24, 2012

Miss. Prison Operator Out; Facility Called A 'Cesspool'

In 2010, former inmate Ross Walton describes mistreatment he says inmates received from guards. Faced with a court order to reform the Walnut Grove juvenile prison, the company managing the prison is leaving Mississippi.
Rogelio V. Solis AP

Originally published on Mon April 30, 2012 6:06 pm

One month after a federal court ordered sweeping changes at a troubled juvenile prison in rural Mississippi, the private company managing the prison is out. A report by the Justice Department describes "systemic, egregious and dangerous practices" at the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility.

As those words imply, the official report is scathing.

Federal Judge Carlton Reeves wrote that the youth prison "has allowed a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions to germinate, the sum of which places the offenders at substantial ongoing risk."

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U.S.
12:40 pm
Tue April 10, 2012

Tulsa Mourns Man Who 'Never Met A Stranger'

A makeshift memorial pays tribute to Bobby Clark, one of the victims of a shooting spree that left three people dead and terrorized Tulsa's African-American community.
Sue Ogrocki AP

Originally published on Thu April 12, 2012 3:57 pm

Three people were killed in last week's shootings in Tulsa, Okla.: Dannaer Fields, 49; William Allen, 31; and Bobby Clark, 54. Two others were wounded in the shootings. All of them were shot — apparently at random — in the predominantly black neighborhood of Northgate in northern Tulsa.

It was Bobby Clark's brother, Donny, who first found him after the fatal shooting.

"I came through there and I realized it was my brother laying in the street," Clark says. "They shot him under the armpit, and I think it hit his heart."

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Social Entrepreneurs: Taking On World Problems
11:59 am
Fri April 6, 2012

Company Ties Shoes And Ethics Together

Gideon Shoes co-founder Matt Noffs with youth from The Street University, the nonprofit youth center that launched the fair trade company.
John Burnett NPR

Originally published on Sat April 7, 2012 10:16 am

You don't go through corporate communications to meet the executive steering committee at Gideon Shoes.

Instead, you walk through a basketball court with graffiti-covered walls and into a sound studio. There, Gideon employees are warming up their talking points: rap lyrics.

"There's no excuses in this life, so I'm fighting on. ... The flame inside my heart is more like a firestorm," they rap.

The team is made up of Suhkdeep Bhogal from India, Thane Poloai from Samoa and Allan from New Zealand, who doesn't want to give his last name.

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Opinion
12:46 pm
Fri March 30, 2012

Lone Star State Of Mind: Could Texas Go It Alone?

Lone Star Nation: Today, the Texas capitol flies both the American and Texas flags, but after independence the Lone Star flag would fly on its own.
Steve Dunwell Getty Images

It's a popular idea in Texas that the Lone Star State — once an independent republic — could break away and go it alone. A few years ago, Texas Gov. Rick Perry hinted that if Washington didn't stop meddling in his state, independence might be an option. In his brief run for the White House, he insisted that nearly anything the feds do, the states — and Texas in particular — could do better.

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Health Care
10:01 pm
Tue March 27, 2012

Texas, Feds Face Off Over Planned Parenthood

Rene Resendez, a 24-year-old uninsured graduate student, used to be a client at the Planned Parenthood in Odessa, Texas, which closed earlier this month because of state budget cuts.
John Burnett NPR

Texas and the federal government are going at each other again, this time over Planned Parenthood.

The Texas Legislature cut off all Medicaid money to Planned Parenthood because of its involvement in abortions; in response, the federal government has suspended funding for the state's reproductive health program.

Now, Texas is suing the Obama administration.

Closed For Business

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World
2:47 pm
Fri March 2, 2012

Mexican Drug Cartel Targets Australia

An image released Nov. 14, 2011, by the Australian Federal Police shows cocaine seized during the yacht raid in Bundaberg. Drug smugglers take advantage of Australia's long coastline and many harbors.
Australian Federal Police EPA/Landov

Originally published on Sat March 3, 2012 5:09 am

Australia is a huge island, with stretches of lonely, rocky coastline that extend for thousands of miles. What's more, there are lots of harbors and airports.

In short, opportunities are plentiful for an enterprising Mexican drug trafficker to move his product 8,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean to service the vibrant new market Down Under.

One such drug lord is Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman, head of Mexico's Sinaloa cartel. He's a cunning, small-statured, exceedingly dangerous outlaw recently dubbed "the world's most powerful drug trafficker" by the U.S. Treasury Department.

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A Blog Supreme
2:00 am
Sat February 25, 2012

Shannon Powell: New Orleans Rhythm, Straight From The Source

Shannon Powell performs with the Palm Court Jazz Band at the 2010 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Clayton Call Redferns

Originally published on Thu March 29, 2012 3:18 pm

It is said of Shannon Powell that he's part of New Orleans' musical DNA — that he knows things only local drummers know.

Powell, 49, is the A-list drummer in town. He's played with Dr. John, Harry Connick Jr., Nicholas Payton, R&B guitarist Earl King and Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

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Latin America
4:16 am
Sat January 28, 2012

Law-Abiding Mexicans Taking Up Illegal Guns

Police stand near the scene of a murder in Juarez, Mexico. The country suffers from drug cartel-related violence despite some of the most restrictive gun laws in the world.
Spencer Platt Getty Images

Originally published on Sat January 28, 2012 3:53 pm

In Mexico, where criminals are armed to the teeth with high-powered weapons smuggled from the United States, it may come as a surprise that the country has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the world.

Law-abiding Mexicans who want a gun to defend themselves have no good options. Either they fight government red tape to get a legal permit, or they buy one on the black market.

After an outbreak of violence, one embattled community in northern Mexico called Colonia LeBaron has begun to ask if it's time for the country to address its gun laws.

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Election 2012
7:44 am
Sun January 22, 2012

Mexican Cousins Keep Romney's Family Tree Rooted

Miles and Kent Romney, (left to right), distant cousins of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, in Colonia Juarez, Mexico. Miles believes his cousin's candidacy is nothing less than prophetic.
Peter Breslow NPR

Originally published on Wed January 25, 2012 7:24 am

Hispanic voters are a key group in the presidential race, and Republican hopeful Mitt Romney has been reaching out to them. Should he tell them that he himself is the son of an immigrant from Mexico?

Romney's father, George, was born in the state of Chihuahua, in a colony of polygamous Mormons.

Romney rarely speaks about the Mexican branch of his family, and he's never visited his numerous cousins south of the border — but the Romneys of Mexico are all rooting for him.

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Latin America
7:01 am
Fri December 16, 2011

Angels Send Message Of Peace To Juarez, Mexico

After 20 minutes of silent witness, the angels gather around a group of neighbors and pray with them for employment, for better living conditions, for salvation from sin, and for an end to the murders.
Raymundo Aguirre for NPR

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 9:11 am

In the violent border city of Juarez, Mexico, young evangelical Christians are dressing up as "Messenger Angels" to bear silent witness against murder and corruption, to the dismay of the police.

On a recent Saturday morning in the barrio called New Land, at the ragged edge of Juarez, the angels get ready to go to work.

Fifteen young people glue goose down recovered from cast-off comforters onto plastic wings. Others smear on silver makeup, which is, presumably, the color of angels.

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Around the Nation
4:16 am
Sun December 4, 2011

Migrants Say They're Unwilling Mules For Cartels

A Border Patrol agent looks for footprints from illegal immigrants crossing the U.S.- Mexico border in 2010. Traffickers have begun using immigrants as drug smugglers, recruiting voluntarily and forcibly.
John Moore Getty Images

Originally published on Sun December 4, 2011 5:06 pm

Mexican drug cartels have found a new source of labor to backpack marijuana into the United States: illegal immigrants.

Federal agents, prosecutors, defense attorneys and migrants themselves say that traffickers have begun recruiting undocumented immigrants at the border, both voluntarily and forcibly. Now, U.S. courts along the border have to decide what to do with terrified immigrants who come before them and say, "The cartel made me do it."

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