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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4:14am

Wed September 17, 2014
National Security

Unregulated Skies: Keeping Watch On America's Vertical Borders

Originally published on Wed September 17, 2014 6:47 am

Agents at the Air and Marine Operations Center in at an Air Force Reserve base in Riverside, Calif. track 20,000 to 25,000 flights a day for suspicious activity.
Master Sgt. Julie Avey AMOC

Inside a cluster of nondescript buildings on a military base in Southern California, the big radar room at the Air and Marine Operations Center looks vaguely like NASA Mission Control.

Thirty-two federal agents sit at Dell PCs, each one watching a different region of the country, monitoring private planes that might be carrying drugs or terrorists.

They don't find many. But they watch everything larger than an eagle that moves in U.S. airspace.

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12:59pm

Sat September 6, 2014
Around the Nation

In Cities Across Texas, Activists Battle Billboard Companies

Originally published on Sat September 6, 2014 3:09 pm

More than 350 towns and cities in Texas have banned new billboards, but billboards companies are still pressing for new and taller signs.
John Burnett

Language warning: This story contains words some may find offensive.

The Highway Beautification Act will be 50 years old next year. As envisioned by Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, it was supposed to protect the natural landscape from billboards.

Ever since its passage, scenic activists and billboard companies have been at war over the views along American highways. The outdoor advertising industry says its signs are informational, and helpful to local businesses. Open-space advocates call them "sky trash" and "litter on a stick."

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5:20pm

Wed August 27, 2014
Law

In Settlement, Homeland Security Agrees To Reform 'Voluntary Departures'

Originally published on Thu August 28, 2014 12:53 pm

The Department of Homeland Security is settling a lawsuit with the ACLU, which deals with immigrants who were improperly pushed to leave the country. The suit alleged that DHS agents coerced immigrants living in the U.S. illegally to take part in a process called "voluntary departure."

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3:49am

Mon August 18, 2014
Around the Nation

In South Texas, Few On The Fence Over Divisive Border Wall Issue

Originally published on Mon August 25, 2014 10:36 am

Pamela Taylor, who lives near Brownsville, Texas, calls the border fence there "useless."
John Burnett NPR

When Congress thinks about border security, it often sees a big, imposing fence.

The federal government has spent $2.3 billion to build the fence — 649 miles of steel fencing, in sections, between the U.S. and Mexico, designed to help control the illegal movement of people and contraband.

It's called tactical infrastructure, and the Border Patrol says it works. But people on the lower Texas border have another name for it: a boondoggle.

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4:53am

Sat August 9, 2014
Around the Nation

New Mexico's Northern Landscape Gets A New Burst Of Color

Originally published on Sat August 9, 2014 11:40 am

Thanks to unusually heavy monsoon rains, mesa land east of Ghost Ranch in New Mexico has erupted into vibrant green life — an unusual sight in this region.
courtesy Harvey Day

Much of the American West is suffering from extreme drought this year. California is running out of water and wildfires have raged through Washington, Oregon and Idaho. But there is a bright spot out West — or, rather, a green spot. In New Mexico, unusually heavy late-summer rains have transformed the landscape.

It's a remarkable sight. The high desert is normally the color of baked pie crust; now, it's emerald.

Kirt Kempter, a geologist who lives in Santa Fe, says this transformation is far from ordinary.

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4:19pm

Thu August 7, 2014
Around the Nation

In Texas Borderland, Security Is No Simple Goal

Originally published on Thu August 7, 2014 7:43 pm

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

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8:03am

Tue July 15, 2014
Parallels

Who Is Smuggling Immigrant Children Across The Border?

Originally published on Tue July 15, 2014 9:00 am

Child detainees in a holding cell at a Border Patrol facility in Brownsville, Texas. Some human smugglers who bring children across the Rio Grande make sure to treat their clients well.
Eric Gay AP

"They call me the Wolf," said the 25-year-old human smuggler sitting in front of me, sipping a Coke and stepping away for frequent cellphone calls.

"Everybody says we're the problem, but it's the reverse. The gringos don't want to get their hands dirty. So I bring them the Mexicans and Central Americans to do the dirty work for them," he says, smiling.

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7:21pm

Wed July 9, 2014
Law

For Kids In Immigration Court, Legal Counsel Is Catch As Catch Can

Originally published on Wed July 9, 2014 10:39 pm

Protesters outside a San Antonio courthouse advocate for legal representation for immigrant children.
John Burnett NPR

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups sued the federal government Wednesday for its failure to provide legal representation to immigrant children in deportation proceedings.

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6:22pm

Tue July 1, 2014
Code Switch

Influx Of Children Creates New Strain On Beleaguered Immigration Courts

Originally published on Tue July 1, 2014 10:55 pm

Boys in a holding area at a Border Protection center in Nogales, Ariz. Generally, minors are put into deportation proceedings and given a "Notice To Appear" in immigration court, but they have permission to stay in the country while the U.S. decides their fate.
Ross D. Franklin AP

President Obama said over the weekend that he is seeking to fast-track deportations of unaccompanied immigrant children from Central America who cross into the United States.

More than 52,000 have been caught in South Texas since October, and hundreds more arrive daily, overwhelming Border Patrol stations and overflowing temporary shelters.

But once they get here, what happens? Do they just get to stay, as the president's critics charge?

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5:09am

Tue July 1, 2014
Law

U.S. Court: Mexican Teen Killed By Border Patrol Had Rights

Originally published on Tue July 1, 2014 4:27 pm

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

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3:25am

Mon June 30, 2014
It's All Politics

Meet The Newest American Running Mate: The Rifle

Originally published on Mon June 30, 2014 1:32 pm

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell holds a rifle on stage at the Conservative Political Action Committee annual conference earlier this year.
Susan Walsh AP

5:45pm

Fri June 20, 2014
Around the Nation

From A Stream To A Flood: Migrant Kids Overwhelm U.S. Border Agents

Originally published on Fri June 20, 2014 7:59 pm

Romero is detained at a county park near McAllen, Texas, after wading across the Rio Grande. He says he left Central America to avoid conscription by street gangs and to join his family in the U.S.
John Burnett/NPR

Like a marathoner at the end of a grueling race, 16-year-old Jorge Romero sits on the grass, exhausted. A county constable has detained him about a hundred yards from the Rio Grande.

For a month, Romero traveled from El Salvador through Mexico to Texas, avoiding predatory police and gangs, warding off mosquitoes and hunger.

Migrants like Romero are creating a humanitarian crisis for federal border authorities. Record numbers of Central American immigrants are crossing the Rio Grande into South Texas, overwhelming the Border Patrol's limited holding facilities.

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4:00pm

Wed June 11, 2014
U.S.

How Border Patrol Handles The Immigrant Children Streaming Into Texas

Originally published on Wed June 11, 2014 6:24 pm

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The majority of the minors seeking asylum cross through the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. NPR's John Burnett is there this week. He joins us to tell us about the huge volume of kids crossing the border and about the conditions where some of them are now being detained. And John, you're in the city of Harlingen. What are you hearing?

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4:36pm

Fri June 6, 2014
Law

Open Carry Activists Bear Arms In The Streets — And Chipotle

Originally published on Sat June 7, 2014 6:02 pm

As part of the open carry movement, some gun rights activists in Texas have been carrying loaded rifles into restaurants to assert their second amendment rights. A growing list of national chains has pushed back, though, instituting no-guns policies in response. Even the National Rifle Association has publicly rebuked the Texas long-gun enthusiasts. NPR's John Burnett covers a street demonstration by a particularly aggressive chapter of the open carry movement in Fort Worth, Texas.

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5:05pm

Fri May 30, 2014
National Security

Border Agency Revises And Makes Public Its Use Of Force Policy

Originally published on Fri May 30, 2014 7:07 pm

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske has released documents regarding the use of force along the U.S.-Mexico border.

3:35am

Wed May 28, 2014
Law

After Private Pilots Complain, Customs Rethinks Intercept Policy

Originally published on Wed May 28, 2014 12:57 pm

Tom and Bonnie Lewis were stopped on a trip from Texas to New Hampshire because they were flying along a known drug air route.
John Burnett NPR

Federal border security agents have sharply reduced intercepts of general aviation aircraft, following complaints by pilots that excessive police action at small airports is restricting the freedom to fly.

An official with U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Office of Air and Marine Operations told NPR his agency has heard pilots' grievances and the program is being altered so as not to needlessly affront law-abiding pilots.

In recent years, more and more pilots have reported their aircraft stopped for warrantless searches by aggressive officers.

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1:34pm

Sun May 18, 2014
Religion

Nigerian Church Spreads African-Style Zeal Across North America

Originally published on Sun May 18, 2014 1:50 pm

Members of the Redeemed Christian Church of God pray at Redemption Camp in Floyd, Texas, in 2009. The church is on a mission to spread to every city in North America.
Jessica Rinaldi Reuters /Landov

In earlier times, white missionaries traveled from Europe and America to sub-Saharan Africa to save souls.

Today, the trend has reversed. Evangelists from the global south are targeting Americans and Europeans they say are ripe for Christian renewal.

There is no greater example than the Redeemed Christian Church of God. This ambitious Nigerian denomination has established its North American headquarters in Texas, and its goal is nothing less than becoming the next major global religion.

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3:04am

Thu May 15, 2014
Law

U.S. Border Patrol's Response To Violence In Question

Originally published on Thu May 15, 2014 10:55 am

Patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border can be dangerous. Still, critics say there isn't enough public accountability when Border Patrol agents use deadly force.
Eric Thayer Reuters/Landov

Picnickers in a riverside park in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, react in horror as a man in a yellow baseball cap named Guillermo Arevalo lies on the bank of the Rio Grande, bleeding to death.

It's a warm Monday evening in September 2012. He has just been shot by an agent on a U.S. Border Patrol airboat on the river. The Border Patrol says the agent shot at rock throwers and that the incident is under investigation.

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4:43am

Sun April 13, 2014
Religion

Statue Of A Homeless Jesus Startles A Wealthy Community

Originally published on Mon April 14, 2014 8:40 am

The Rev. David Buck sits next to the Jesus the Homeless statue that was installed in front of his church, St. Alban's Episcopal, in Davidson, N.C.
John Burnett NPR

A new religious statue in the town of Davidson, N.C., is unlike anything you might see in church.

The statue depicts Jesus as a vagrant sleeping on a park bench. St. Alban's Episcopal Church installed the homeless Jesus statue on its property in the middle of an upscale neighborhood filled with well-kept townhomes.

Jesus is huddled under a blanket with his face and hands obscured; only the crucifixion wounds on his uncovered feet give him away.

The reaction was immediate. Some loved it; some didn't.

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4:08pm

Wed April 9, 2014
News

Obama Honors Victims Of Fort Hood Shooting

Originally published on Wed April 9, 2014 6:48 pm

President Obama is traveling to Fort Hood, Texas, on Wednesday to attend the memorial service for those killed in last week's shooting.

4:03pm

Wed April 2, 2014
NPR News Investigations

Onscreen But Out Of Sight, TV Preachers Avoid Tax Scrutiny

Originally published on Wed April 2, 2014 9:54 pm

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel in Washington.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block, coming to you this week from member station KERA in Dallas.

This week, we're bringing you two special reports that delve into the hidden finances of televangelists. Yesterday, we featured an investigation into Daystar Television, headquartered in Dallas-Fort Worth. Daystar describes itself as the fastest growing Christian TV network in the world. The IRS classifies it as a church.

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4:41pm

Tue April 1, 2014
NPR News Investigations

Can A Television Network Be A Church? The IRS Says Yes

Originally published on Thu April 3, 2014 10:06 am

Marcus and Joni Lamb, founders of Daystar, also host their own show, as seen in this screenshot from their network. With $233 million in assets, Daystar is the largest religious television network in America that also calls itself a church.
Daystar Television Network

Flip on Daystar television at any hour of the day and you'll likely see the elements of modern televangelism: a stylish set, an emotional spiritual message and a phone number on the screen soliciting donations.

Based in a studio complex between Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas, and broadcasting to a potential audience of 2 billion people around the globe, Daystar calls itself the fastest growing Christian television network in the world.

The Internal Revenue Service considers Daystar something else: a church.

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3:42pm

Thu March 20, 2014
Parallels

Awash In Cash, Drug Cartels Rely On Big Banks To Launder Profits

Originally published on Fri March 21, 2014 6:20 pm

A woman uses a cash machine at an HSBC bank office in Mexico City. The multi-national bank was heavily penalized several years ago for permitting huge transfers of drug cartel money between Mexico and the U.S.
Enric Marti AP

The Sinaloa Cartel, headquartered on Mexico's northern Pacific Coast, is constantly exploring new ways to launder its gargantuan profits. The State Department reports that Mexican trafficking organizations earn between $19 and $29 billion every year from selling marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines on the streets of American cities.

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5:06am

Thu March 20, 2014
Parallels

At The Border, The Drugs Go North And The Cash Goes South

Originally published on Thu March 20, 2014 11:07 am

Many drug cartel members die young, and when they do, their families often spend lavishly to construct mausoleums that look like small condos.
John Burnett NPR

The international drug trade goes in two directions: Narcotics go north and money goes south. All the drug profits made on the streets of U.S. cities like Chicago and Atlanta and Dallas are funneled down to ports of entry on the U.S.-Mexico border where they're smuggled back into Mexico. In 2012, one federal agency alone, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, seized $411 million in cash hidden in vehicles, mostly heading south.

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8:56am

Wed March 19, 2014
Parallels

'Saint Death' Now Revered On Both Sides Of U.S.-Mexico Frontier

Originally published on Wed March 19, 2014 5:40 pm

Claudia Rosales kneels in front of her home altar devoted to Santa Muerte, or Saint Death. Rosales put up a statue of the saint in the city that was taken down by the mayor of Matamoros.
Kainaz Amaria NPR

The intrepid tourist who visits the market in the border city of Matamoros will find her between the onyx chess sets and Yucateca hammocks. She looks like a statue of the Grim Reaper dressed in a flowing gown. She is Santa Muerte, or Saint Death.

Originally revered as an underground folk saint in Mexico, her popularity has jumped the Rio Grande and spread to Mexican communities throughout the United States.

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5:27pm

Thu January 30, 2014
Around the Nation

SpaceX Could Give Struggling Texas City A Boost

Originally published on Thu January 30, 2014 8:00 pm

SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft atop rocket Falcon 9 lifts off from Cape Canaveral in Florida in May 2012. The launch made SpaceX the first commercial company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station.
Roberto Gonzalez Getty Images

The space company SpaceX has identified a remote spot on the southern tip of Texas as its finalist for construction of the world's newest commercial orbital launch site.

The 50-acre site really is at the end of the road. Texas Highway 4 abruptly ends at the warm waves of the Gulf surrounded by cactus, Spanish dagger and sand dunes.

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4:59pm

Thu December 5, 2013
Ecstatic Voices

For An Ex-Christian Rocker, Faith Lost Is A Following Gained

Originally published on Fri December 6, 2013 11:57 am

Taylor Muse (front), lead singer of the Austin indie-rock band Quiet Company, says the group is ready to be seen as more than just "the atheist band."
Courtesy of the artist

Taylor Muse is the 31-year-old bandleader and songwriter of Quiet Company, an indie-rock band from Austin. A native of East Texas raised in a Southern Baptist church, he now reluctantly carries the banner of "that atheist rocker from Austin."

"Every band that I was in up until college was a Christian band," Muse says. "It was part of our identity as people, our identity as a community. It was everything."

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4:06pm

Tue December 3, 2013
Remembrances

Televangelist Paul Crouch, Who Started Trinity Network, Dies

Originally published on Tue December 3, 2013 6:39 pm

Televangelist Paul Crouch, co-founder of the Trinity Broadcasting Network, died Saturday at the age of 79. The Pentecostal minister's broadcasting network came to be the world's largest Christian television system with Praise-a-Thon fundraising efforts that brought in as much as $90 million a year in mostly small donations.

5:15am

Wed November 27, 2013
Energy

Drilling For Oil, Based On The Bible: Do Oil And Religion Mix?

Originally published on Wed November 27, 2013 12:44 pm

John Brown, the head of Zion Oil & Gas, believes the Bible will help him find oil in Israel. The company, which is listed on Nasdaq, has so far spent $130 million and drilled four dry holes. Brown is shown here at one of the company's drilling rigs in Israel.
Courtesy of Zion Oil

They say an oilman has to be a gambler, but can he be a prophet?

Zion Oil & Gas, based in Dallas, is a publicly traded company that believes it is commanded by the Bible to search for oil in Israel, both to help the Holy Land and make money for investors. The 22 employees of Zion Oil in Texas and Israel, and many of its 30,000 investors, believe the company is on a mission from God.

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4:25am

Sun November 3, 2013
The Salt

To Stave Off Decline, Churches Attract New Members With Beer

Originally published on Mon November 4, 2013 5:40 pm

Todd Fadel, at piano, leads singers at a recent gathering of Beer & Hymns at First Christian Church Portland.
John Burnett NPR

With mainline religious congregations dwindling across America, a scattering of churches is trying to attract new members by creating a different sort of Christian community. They are gathering around craft beer.

Some church groups are brewing it themselves, while others are bring the Holy Mysteries to a taproom. The result is not sloshed congregants; rather, it's an exploratory approach to do church differently.

Leah Stanfield stands at a microphone across the room from the beer taps and reads this evening's gospel message.

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