Burns Views Detachment as Moral Failing

  • John F. Burns  

He covered the Soweto riots in South Africa during apartheid and reported on wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and the former Yugoslavia. The Chinese government once accused him of espionage and imprisoned him.

John F. Burns, London bureau chief for The New York Times, is the longest-serving foreign correspondent in the Times’ history.

The two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for reporting is Franklin & Marshall College’s 2008-09 Mueller Fellow.

Burns will speak on Monday, April 6, at 7:30 p.m., on War and Repression: A Reporter’s Life in the World’s Troubled Spots in the Barshinger Center for Musical Arts. The event is free and open to the public.

His reporting has taken him to China, India and the Soviet Union during perilous periods. After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, he directed the Times’ coverage of the Afghanistan war. He covered the last six months of Saddam Hussein’s regime and after the capture of Baghdad, Burns served as bureau chief for the paper in Baghdad—often under hazardous circumstances—until July 2007.

In addition to his Pulitzers, Burns has twice won the George Polk Award for foreign reporting in Africa and Afghanistan.

Burns admitted that war can be thrilling, yet, he added, “Many of the most remarkable people I have ever met are those who have suffered from war.

“We are all subject to the reality that we are war junkies. Any war correspondent who tells you that exhilaration is not part of it is not telling the truth,” he said.

Yet, Burns continued, in war he has seen the good in humans who have braved bullets to care for others.

“I have seen good people doing remarkable things in the most dire circumstances,” he said.

He believes journalists have a moral obligation to do something, even in a small way, to alleviate the suffering they see.

“Detachment is a deep moral failing,” Burns insisted. “You cannot remain neutral in a moral crisis. It is wrong to be satisfied simply with recounting the miseries of war. I cannot say that I always did this, but I know that to do something to alleviate that suffering is better than any page one story you will ever write.”

Burns blamed his profession for placing too much value on dispassion in reporting.

“It is possible to be passionate and still be fair, as long as you are relentless in reporting the facts. You have an obligation to try to indicate to the reader where the moral balance lies,” he said. “There is good and evil in war.”

The Mueller Fellowship, established in 1980, brings distinguished men and women to the College for visits of several days to participate in classes and seminars with students and faculty.

The Mueller Fellowship Endowment was established by the Mueller family, chiefly by Judge Paul A. Mueller Jr. and Mrs. Alma S. Mueller. Paul Mueller Sr. and Judge Mueller, his son, served on the College’s Board of Trustees.

The first two Mueller Fellows were U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun and literary critic Irving Howe. Other Mueller Fellows have included Sir David Attenborough, Sen. Eugene McCarthy, John McPhee, Willie Ruff, Dwike Mitchell, I.F. Stone, Jean Strouse, Frances Moore Lappe, Jamie Galbraith, William Raspberry, Martha Fineman, David McCullough, James Burke, Susan Estrich, Joseph Schwantner, Laurie Anderson, Paul Ehrlich, Thomas Friedman, Cornel West, Frank Deford, Spike Lee, E.O. Wilson, Paul Solman, Joe Klein, Eric Schlosser, Lynn Margulis and Jacob Needleman.

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