John Burns Says ‘NYT’ Iraq Coverage Will Not Dip After He Leaves

By: Joe Strupp

John Burns, one of The New York Times’ most respected reporters and a longtime figure in the paper’s Iraq coverage, said he has mixed feelings about leaving the war-torn coverage to take over the paper’s London bureau later this year. But he says, even after he departs, the Times coverage should not and will not be reduced, despite ongoing budget difficulties.

“I think we’ll see this through and we’ll see it through successfully. But in the meantime, there’s no doubt that it’s a time of some constraint and difficulty,” Burns, 62, told C-SPAN during a lengthy interview, set to air on Sunday night. “Our company, like so many others, has had to lose jobs in the last couple of years — very, very painful process. So some very hard decisions have had to be made, but [Iraq] is the defining story of our time.”

Burns, who has been in Iraq for more than four years, made the comments during the Feb. 2 taping of C-SPAN’s “Q&A With Brian Lamb,” which will be broadcast at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. EST on Feb. 11.

“Bill Keller, the editor of the Times, when we discussed this the other night, said we are going to continue to maintain the commitment that we have in Baghdad forward and we’re going to see this through for as long as may be necessary,” Burns said. “And I have to say that that is, I think, a very brave thing to do because I know the figures and I know the strain that it places on the company.”

Asked about living with his wife in Baghdad, Burns said: “Yes. She is the bureau manager for The New York Times. Sounds highly nepotistic, but I think works very well because amongst other things she is much better at saying no than I am, which means that we have a budget that?s under control. And you?ll understand as a chief executive how much that matters. It?s a very, very expensive operation for The New York Times that absorbs a very large proportion of our foreign budget.”

Does he often think about losing his life there? “It?s an odd thing and I suppose ? I don?t want to get into psychobabble here but I think probably the psychologists could probably explain this. I find the war in Iraq much more frightening to watch on television when I?m on leave outside Iraq than I find it when I?m there.

“And why is that? Firstly, the story is so compelling that it drives us onwards. Secondly, I think if you’re a foreign correspondent you’re by nature an adventurer, something of a high-wire artist….

“I used to say that with the folly of youth I remember thinking that 45-year-old foreign correspondents bellying up to distant bars were a pathetic sight. I was ? at the time I had these thoughts I was 28 or 29. Now I?m 62 and I?m still metaphorically bellying up to the bar and I?m very grateful for it, for the opportunity.”

But he added in regard to Iraq: “I’ve been there four-and-a-half years there already, it will be nearly five years by the time I leave, and I think it’s time to move on. I think all institutions need renewing.”

In addition to discussions of Iraq, Burns also talked about his career, family, other foreign beats he’s had, and his overall life. He also talks candidly about the premature birth of his son, now a reporter in Afghanistan, his battle with cancer in the 1990s, and even being George H.W. Bush’s tennis partner in China.

Of retirement, he says: “I have 65 staring me in the face. I was very pleased to hear that there is no instinct at The New York Times for mandatory retirement. And, frankly, I think I’d be a bit vexed. I’m not sure I’d know what to do.

“I sometimes say to myself, I say to my friends, ‘God, I would love to get up in the morning and be able to go to the golf course every morning.’ My wife is sage enough to say, ‘One week of that and you’d be heading for Heathrow or for JFK.'”

Some excerpts provided by C-SPAN follow.

— On moving to London and the paper’s commitment to covering the Iraq War:

“I think I should be conflicted about it because the London job is a wonderful job and especially so for me. I was born and raised in England, a country which I left when I was I think 18. And though I’ve had a home there, a holiday home, a retreat if you will, for the last 15 years – a curious situation that I know distant countries much better than I know my own. So I have an opportunity to get to know my own country.

“On the other hand, I’ll be leaving what is inarguably the main story of our times and the main story of our times as covered by a great newspaper and that’s a hard thing to do. But I’ve been there four-and-a-half years there already, it will be nearly five years by the time I leave, and I think it’s time to move on. I think all institutions need renewing.

“But we’re in a phase where we are adjusting to the new cyber world and finding ways of – new ways of getting our message across. I personally feel, though I’m no expert in it, that what will matter in the long term is content and as long as we continue to produce content of the quality that I believe we do – I’m not speaking about myself now but just reading The New York Times on the train this morning from New York to Washington – it’s an opportunity I don’t often get.

“And so I was interested to know from our executives how they felt about the budget, the amount of money that they’re spending in Iraq. And the commitment is to stay at it. And I think that’s in line with – it sounds like a sort of a company brochure – but it’s actually true that the New York Times historically has made getting to the story, uncovering the story, its priority. And on the assumption that if you get that right, if you get the journalism right, then the economics will follow.

“And so Bill Keller, the editor of the Times, when we discussed this the other night, said we are going to continue to maintain the commitment that we have in Baghdad forward and we’re going to see this through for as long as may be necessary. And I have to say that that is, I think, a very brave thing to do because I know the figures and I know the strain that it places on the company.”

On whether there are limitations placed on Times reporters who cover the Iraq war:

“I think I can say, speaking for myself and my colleagues at the New York Times in Iraq, that there is no truth of significance to our readers and the judgments that they have to make about this war, which we withhold. And it would be something bordering on the criminal if we did. And I think our editors would be very quick to remove me or anyone of my colleagues if they felt that that was the case.

“We are somewhat constrained, of course, by the rules, that’s to say The New York Times’ rules about what responsible journalism involved. And they do not expect us to get involved in the expression of opinion. They don’t expect us to get involved in issues that are highly politically controversial. But there’s quite a lot of latitude within that. I read the British papers a great deal when I’m on leave, and they’re not nearly so strict about this….

“It?s probably worth saying at this point that when we gather together around our refectory table in compound in Baghdad, usually we have a full table of about 12, sometimes 14 people, reporters, photographers, our administration component, our security people. And we talk about the war in very personal ways.

“We have not ourselves reached fundamental conclusions. Dexter Filkins, one of my colleagues, described it as like a kaleidoscope that gets shaken up almost daily and you see a different picture.

“And so, you know, do we believe this war is won or lost? I think the honest answer is that we ? that we don?t know, that the situation is extremely complicated, that it looks pretty dire but all hope is not exhausted.”

On being President George H.W. Bush’s doubles tennis partner in the early 1970s:

“During my first assignment in China there wasn’t a great deal of news and the arrival of an American ambassador, where it didn’t carry that title in the early stages but he was called head of the liaison office – was a news event. So I went out to the airport and was chatting to President Bush, as he was later to become, when his baggage came off the baggage carrel, which included a tennis racket. And I said, ‘Are you a tennis player?’ And he said, ‘Yes, do you play?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ So he said, ‘Is there a court we can play on?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’

“So this was about 2:00 in the afternoon. So within two hours of arriving I was playing tennis with him. And he was a very good tennis player. His uncle, as I recall, was the Davis Cup captain in the 1930’s and had taught him a rule which was written in every stroke he played, which was on service you lost the point if you were not inside the service box on the return. For anybody who knows tennis, that means that you’ve got to be able to volley and he was a beautiful serve and volley player.

“I was, to tell you the truth, a pretty rubbish player and he and I went to the finals of the Peking Diplomatic Tennis Tournament doubles, two years running. Lost both times because of my debility and he said to me once – he, as you know, is an extremely gracious person and he said to me, ‘Goldarn it.’ It’s about the harshest expletive that the older George Bush would ever use.

“He said, ‘What is it with you Brits?’ He said, ‘You really don’t like to win do you?’ And he was right. I’d gone through an education system where we were told that it wasn’t the winning that mattered, that it was, you know, play up and play the game. And I’ve grown up in a country which was in retreat after the second world war. I was born in 1944. And by the late 1950’s, when I was a teenager, I think our principal export had become self-mockery. Anybody familiar with the humor of Britain in the ’50s and ’60, Monty Python, for example, will know what I mean – and it’s an alien thing to Americans.

On whether he’ll write a book about his life:

“You know I’ve not – I have not written a book and I have many friends who say that I should. I’m just not sure what kind of a book to write. But I think it would be wise and I hope if I do write a book I’ll be held to remember it’s not the journalist who is distinguished. It’s not really the journalist who is the interesting character. He has a walk-on part. And that if you’re going to write a book, if you will, a memoir – which in itself makes it sound unbearably pompous – of experiences, make sure that you remain always a minor character in the story, an observer, and a traveler – a privileged traveler.”

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