Talking to John F. Burns, the globetrotting foreign correspondent

On a Saturday evening several weeks ago, John F. Burns and I filed into King’s College, Cambridge, for evening services. Burns, the chief foreign correspondent for The New York Times, does not seem at first glance like a particularly religious man. The 65-year-old McGill graduate is a tall man, solidly built, with a mop of curly, light grey hair and a white beard. In the years he has spent reporting abroad, Burns has filed stories from some of the world’s most disparate and dangerous locales – everywhere from Afghan mountaintops to armoured Land Rovers in Bosnia. But when you lead such an unpredictable life, he told me, there is something comforting about attending services every so often.

From Britain to McGill

Born in 1944 to a South African father and an English mother, Burns grew up attending British boarding schools, an experience he seems to have both valued and detested.

“The headmasters and housemasters at private schools in this country in the 1950s were running dictatorships,” he said during a recent interview in Cambridge, comparing the atmosphere in the repressive societies in which he reported later in life.

Just after his graduation from secondary school, Burns’ father, an officer in the Royal Air Force, accepted a posting in Vancouver. Though he had already secured a place at Pembroke College, Cambridge, Burns decided to take a gap year with his parents in Canada.

“Having been through a British boys’ school that had changed little since the time of Dickens, I felt the moment I stepped on shore in Canada like I’d found freedom,” Burns said, adding that he met his first serious girlfriend in Canada that year. “I loved it, absolutely loved it, and nothing was going to bring me back to [Britain].”

Startling his mother, whose family had attended Cambridge for generations, Burns instead decided to enrol at McGill, where he studied political science and economics.

Charles Taylor, the eminent political philosopher and current emeritus professor, was Burns’ chief intellectual influence while he was at McGill, lecturing Burns and other admiring students on Locke, Hobbes, and Milton.

“We loved him. We would have done anything for him,” Burns said. “What I learned in the classroom at McGill from Charles Taylor has informed my entire personal and professional life.”

An Unlikely Journalist

It was in the McGill library that Burns first read The New York Times, which turned him into a voracious newspaper reader. Burns persuaded an editor at the now-defunct Ottawa Journal to give him a week’s trial as a reporter one summer.

“I got involved in interesting stories and I loved it and I thought every single day I spent in the newsroom was more interesting than any day I’d spent in the university library,” he said. “That’s how I got into this business.”

After a stint reporting for the Ottawa Citizen following his graduation from McGill, Burns was recruited by The Globe and Mail, where he became a parliamentary correspondent covering Pierre Trudeau’s government.

In 1970, Quebec separatists ignited the October Crisis by kidnapping James Cross, the British trade commissioner, and Pierre Laporte, the Quebec government’s minister of labour. On one particularly tense day, Burns became embroiled in a confrontation with Trudeau’s press secretary, Romeo LeBlanc, as he was rushing to ask the prime minister a question.

“He accused me of eavesdropping, and I said, ‘No, I’m not eavesdropping, I’m trying to get the prime minister.’ Trudeau, hearing this, turned around – and he punched me. Knocked me over into an overstuffed armchair.”

In the confusion that followed, security ejected Burns from Parliament and stripped him of his press credentials. Though these were eventually reinstated, The Globe and Mail’s editors chose to reassign Burns to China.

Oddly enough, Burns and Trudeau met again in 1973 when the prime minister made his historic visit to China. Trudeau, remembering the young reporter he had hit three years earlier, asked Burns to ride with him for the duration of his visit. Burns agreed, and the men spent the next two days talking.

With a laugh, Trudeau asked him what had happened after the incident during the October Crisis. “Well,” Burns replied, “you punched me in the nose, and you changed my life.”

On Assignment for The Times

After Burns had spent several years in China, A.M. Rosenthal, the Canadian-born managing editor at The New York Times, took notice of his work. One article in particular, entitled “1,001 Ways to Lie in China,” which described the duplicitous nature of the Chinese bureaucracy, caught Rosenthal’s eye. He offered Burns a job in New York, and in 1975, Burns reluctantly accepted.

Burns was convinced that he wouldn’t make it at the Times when he took the job, even staying in a hotel rather than finding an apartment because he did not believe the job would last. One night in 1975, however, he got his break. According to Burns, he was standing at the elevators at The Times waiting to leave when the city editor told him to get to LaGuardia Airport. “Something’s happened,” the editor said. “Sounds like an explosion.”

Burns raced to LaGuardia through heavy traffic and leapt out of his cab a mile from the airport, scaling a fence and sprinting across the tarmac in the rain toward the terminal. Once inside, he found a payphone and called his editors, describing the chaotic scene. Police were everywhere. Several people were dead, and others were injured. After several hours of chasing through the airport and the local hospitals, an exhausted Burns returned to the Times, convinced he’d botched the assignment.

“When I walked into the newsroom, people on the metro desk applauded,” Burns recalled. “I thought, ‘This is some sort of a joke.'”

It wasn’t. His telephoned reports had been rewritten into a front-page story with a banner headline, which ran under his by-line though Burns hadn’t technically written a word of it. The editors congratulated him on the piece and, according to Burns, his career at the newspaper turned around.

Sarajevo, Afghanistan, and Beyond

Over the next decade and a half, Burns reported for The Times from many far-flung locales. In 1991, he was assigned to Sarajevo to cover the escalating war in the Balkans.

By May 1992, however, the United Nations and the foreign press corps had decided to evacuate Sarajevo, as thousands of artillery shells hammered the city. Burns reluctantly joined the exodus, but stopped when the convoy reached the outskirts of the city.

“As soon as we were gone, the Serbs, who were shelling the city, thinking that they’d put out the eyes of the world, redoubled their attacks,” Burns said. “Within 24 hours of our leaving, the city was on fire. And I thought, ‘This can’t be right.’ So I filled my car with food, and I drove back in there.”

Burns couldn’t believe what he saw as he returned: burning cars with dead bodies in them, breadlines hit by artillery shells, soccer stadiums turned into cemeteries. Though he initially intended to stay only an additional weekend, Burns found shelter with a local family and decided he had a duty to remain in Sarajevo.

After several more weeks in Sarajevo, Burns lost touch with his editors at The Times, who had ordered him out of the city. “For three months, four months, I was the only journalist there,” he said. “The whole press corps was gone.”

At the end of the year, however, an editor at The Times contacted him and asked him to write one final story about what he’d seen that year – usually a sign that a reporter’s work is being considered for the Pulitzer Prize. According to Burns, he filed the story from his armoured Land Rover in the middle of the night, praying a Serbian soldier wouldn’t fire at the glow from his laptop. In 1993, he won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting.

In the following years, Burns reported from both Afghanistan, where he won a second Pultizer
for his coverage of the rise of the Taliban, and Iraq, where he spent five years covering the American invasion and the sectarian fighting that followed. In 2007, Burns finally returned to Britain after 45 years abroad to take a post as The Times’ London bureau chief.

Though he admits to missing some of the thrills of life abroad – flying low over the mountains of Afghanistan in a military helicopter, for instance – Burns appears content to be back in Britain. If nothing else, he can now attend evensong at the King’s College chapel at Cambridge.

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