Email Us Contact CCT   Advertise with CCT! Advertise with CCT University University College Home College Alumni Home Alumni Home
September/October 2006




This Issue





Eyewitness to the News

From 9-11 to the Mideast, N.J. Burkett ’84, ’85 SIPA Tells Important Stories His Way

By Maggie Gram ’05

Burkett, May 1984

Burkett at his College graduation, May 1984. He still has the tie, but no longer wears it.

As the rest of New York fled downtown Manhattan on the morning of September 11, 2001, WABC-TV reporter N.J. Burkett ’84, ’85 SIPA drove into it. In an unmarked Ford Explorer, Burkett and photographer Marty Glembotzky careened 85 blocks downtown in just 22 minutes. They took their equipment out of the Explorer and set it up across the street from the World Trade Center just minutes after the second plane hit. The towers smoked above them. Already, rubble was falling from the sky.

The way Burkett tells it now is more episodic than linear, as if the parts of the story had been pasted back together after the wreck. The videotape — news reportage that Burkett and Glembotzky recorded that morning for New York’s Channel 7 Eyewitness News and that many of the 80 million Americans watching TV news that night would see — shows Burkett and Glembotzky setting up the camera for a standup. In the first take, Burkett ad-libs and gestures up at the burning southern tower, and Glembotzky pans the camera up to the tower and then back down to Burkett. Then they begin another take. Burkett gestures up at the building again, and Glembotzky pans up to it a second time. At that moment, with Glembotzky’s camera trained on it and Burkett gesturing toward it, the building falls.

Burkett fleeing the World Trade Center.

Burkett flees from the World Trade Center’s North Tower on September 11, 2001, which he calls “the worst day of my life.”

“No one expected the buildings to come down,” Burkett says, nearly five years later. “We thought it was going to be the towering inferno, with heroic rescues by heroic guys, and we were there to tell that story. And then, all of a sudden, the tower collapsed.”

From here, Burkett’s story is mostly logistics. He remembers running with Glembotzky through a crowd of hundreds of people through a door into the protected atrium of an office building, then out of the building and into a construction trailer with a phone line where they contacted their newsroom, and then to the nearest satellite truck where they pieced together their footage.

But it is here, in recounting that morning’s many scene changes, that Burkett’s narration reaches its most serious, most ambivalent and most thoughtful. He talks about his escape into the office building atrium, where he and Glembotzky were protected from the falling wreckage.

“We turned around and there was a door,” he says. “There was a door. What if there hadn’t been a door? What if the door had been locked?”

A pause.

“But you can’t go through life asking that question, ‘What if there were no door?’ ”

A longer pause. He squeezes his hand into a fist, then resumes.

“I must live with the fact, and thankfully so, that there was a door, and that Marty and I went through the door. I know there were a lot of people who didn’t go through the door, and I have to live with that.

Burkett reporting in Kuwait City.

In March 2003, on the eve of Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, Burkett reports live for the 6 o’clock edition of Eyewitness News from the rooftop of the Kuwait Sheraton Hotel in Kuwait City.

“This is difficult stuff.”

This is the way Newton J. Burkett tells a story. As befits a top television news reporter, he captivates: Whether on-screen or off, he sets up a scintillating back-story, decorates the scene with details and introduces a colorful cast of characters. But there is an elusive quality that sets the real-life storyteller apart from his on-screen counterpart. It’s a seriousness, an essential ambivalence — that lurking “What if?” — that sets the two-minute stories he tells on TV apart from the haunting and ambiguous allegories he tells in real life.

“What’s interesting about Newton, and what’s always been interesting about Newton, is that he is an intellectual trapped in the body of a local TV reporter,” says Ron Claiborne, the news anchor for ABC News’ weekend edition of Good Morning America. Claiborne has known Burkett since he was a College student working as an assistant to a reporter at New York’s Channel 5. “Newton, when you get beyond the blond-hair Nordic look and the TV persona, is an extremely bright, thoughtful and analytical guy — a serious guy who gives a lot of thought to important questions and events.”

To be sure, Burkett can weave a good yarn. Like the one where intrepid N.J. gets stuck in the Channel 7 helicopter, flying back from an assignment, in the middle of a snowstorm. “You don’t want to be in a helicopter with zero visibility,” he says. “These are whiteout conditions. So we’re saying, ‘Oh, please, pop the pontoons, land in the river, just get out of the air!’ until finally the pilot manages to get above the snowstorm and flies us back.”

Or the one where he jumps into a fire truck in Eastern Long Island as it drives straight into a forest fire. As soon as the firefighters and their embedded reporter reach the center of the inferno, the truck runs out of water. The firefighters try everything, but the flames keep coming in, closer and closer, licking the sides of the truck. Finally the fire crew is able to contact the command post, which sends a helicopter to fly in and dump water on the fire from above, and the water knocks down the flames enough so that the truck can drive out before the blaze flares up again. “Now there’s a situation where you really don’t expect to get killed,” Burkett says, “but it’s almost as close as you can get.”

Burkett in the Northern Desert of Kuwait.

In March 2003, just weeks before the war begins, Burkett covers U.S. military exercises in the Northern Desert of Kuwait, near the Iraqi border.

Few of the stories Burkett tells have such unambiguously happy endings. In winter 2002, he and a photographer went undercover and slept for several weeks in one of New York’s homeless shelters. As a Middle East specialist, he has been sent to report on events in that region with some frequency and indeed was reporting from Lebanon as this story was being edited. He has covered the Palestinian Intifada and the terror attacks and subsequent fallout in London and Spain. He has served as a war correspondent in Iraq. As he recounts any one of the tales that have come out of these trips, he asks himself and his listeners the kinds of questions that make it difficult to tell where the moral of the story lies.

Burkett is careful to convey the complexity and the human tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 2002, he says, as he left East Jerusalem to head back to ABC’s Jerusalem bureau, he asked his driver to stop in a large open-air market so that he could collect a final few man-on-the-street interviews about the Intifada. The driver didn’t understand the request in time to stop at the market, Burkett says, and they drove a block and a half too far. When Burkett finally made himself clear, the driver stopped the car. At that moment, Burkett recalls, a huge explosion came from the area just behind them. The market had been bombed. Burkett and the driver turned around and followed the first ambulance into the ruined grounds.

“What if he had stopped when I’d wanted to?” Burkett asks now. “I would have been in the market at that moment. But I wasn’t. And I hope that what I saw that day is the worst thing that I ever see in my life.”

But, he stresses, no decision is easy. He was in Kuwait when the air war began and Saddam Hussein began firing Scud missiles at the country. He heard the first air-raid sirens, he says, while brushing his teeth in his hotel room, and he snapped the gas mask onto his face while there was still toothpaste in his mouth.

“Then, you have to make this decision,” he says. “Do you run to the roof, where you see what’s happening and report on what’s happening? Or do you run to the basement, where you know you’ll be safe?”

Again, a pause.

“You take calculated risks. You say, ‘OK, the missiles are coming in. Kuwait’s a big place — but how big? What are the chances that one of these missiles is going to land on your head?’

Burkett with Donald Rumsfeld.

Burkett and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld after a May 27, 2003, interview at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. “He was evasive when asked whether it really mattered that the U.S. military had yet to find either Saddam Hussein or any weapons of mass destruction,” Burkett says.

“I ran in one direction — and then the other direction,” he says, whipping his head back and forth. “And then I turned again and I decided to go to the roof.”

The questions, though, remain: “What are the chances?” “What if he had stopped when I’d wanted to?” “What if there hadn’t been a door?” Burkett’s storytelling is all about asking those questions and then leaving them, hanging, in the air.

“Is there any story worth dying for? No. But is there any story worth risking your life for? Maybe. I’m just not sure.”

Burkett is 44. He grew up in Elizabeth, N.J., where he was a news junkie, as friend Harris Salat puts it, “from day one.” He knew from early adolescence that he wanted be a newsman. He loved to sit around his high school cafeteria telling stories, and— “My mother would tell you this!” — he loved to have an audience.

Salat, now also a journalist, met Burkett when they were sixth-graders in the same Boy Scout troop. (They were in the same class at school, too, and Salat proclaims, somewhat proudly, that whenever he went to the pencil sharpener he would pause to punch Burkett on the way.) When they were in high school, the two took regular trips to New York to take the NBC studio tour at 30 Rockefeller Plaza; halfway through the tour they would duck into the men’s room and stand on the toilet seats until the tour guide had moved on. “After we’d finished hiding, we’d have the run of NBC,” Salat recalls. “We’d go visit the television station, WNBC radio, Saturday Night Live — all the sets. We were ninth- or 10th-graders, just rolling in, but people were really friendly to us. It was a way to learn more.”

Burkett says that his time as a student at the College has served him so well in his media career that he tells aspiring young journalists to try to get the Columbia kind of undergraduate experience. “Get the best liberal education you can possibly get: Learn a language, learn science, learn econ, learn to write,” he counsels. “That’s what was valuable about Columbia. It teaches you the curriculum, but it also teaches you to think, how to be critical, how to take an argument and look for the flaws.

“It’s important that I know how to think critically and analytically, because I’m not a stenographer to the rich and powerful,” he says. “It’s my job to tell people what’s going on, and it’s becoming increasingly perilous.”

Burkett at a mural in Gaza City.

This mural on a Gaza City wall, photographed in December 2001, “was one of the most disturbing sights I saw during the Palestinian uprising known as the Intifada,” Burkett says.

As an undergraduate, Burkett was a member of WKCR’s news staff before landing an internship with Channel 5 News in New York, where he worked for international editor Christopher Jones. When the internship period ended, Jones asked Burkett to stay on part-time as his assistant. Jones paid Burkett out of his own pocket, and Burkett continued to work for him through the rest of his time in college, juggling the job in midtown with his undergraduate courses and, during his senior year, with the additional graduate classes he needed to complete a five-year program that gave him a master’s in international affairs in addition to his B.A. Those years were difficult, Burkett says, but he believed that the crunch was worthwhile: “I wanted to get a great education, but I also wanted to get out there and get going on my career.”

Claiborne says Burkett made the best of that period of apprenticeship, supplementing his coffee-fetching and script-running duties with a careful, independent study of the news business. “He really used his apprenticeship as an apprenticeship,” Claiborne says. “Yes, he ran the errands for Jones, but at the same time he was, with an almost academic intensity, deconstructing and analyzing and trying to figure out what worked and didn’t work, both visually and in terms of writing. I remember him thinking very carefully about what kind of television writing had an impact on the viewer — and what kind of writing, conversely, is just a lot of self-indulgent prose that flatters the writer but fails to communicate.”

Burkett left Columbia in 1985 armed with a B.A., an M.A. and a set of tapes that he had made of himself reading scripts as if he were on the air. Using those tapes and a relentless stream of résumés, cover letters, phone calls and station visits, he landed a temporary job filling in for an on-air reporter who was on maternity leave from WSFB, the CBS affiliate in Hartford, Conn. Burkett worked both the reporting job in Hartford and a newswriting job in New York for eight consecutive seven-day weeks. When that period was over, the WSFB reporter decided not to come back from her maternity leave and the station told Burkett that he could keep her job.

Burkett editing videotape.

Burkett edits videotape on a screening machine in Nasiriyah, Iraq, in April 2003. “We got pretty good at setting up makeshift TV stations wherever we went, no matter how hot or dusty or dangerous it got,” Burkett says.

One day, WSFB sent Burkett to cover a chemical leak. As he was waiting for a press statement, he saw a young woman standing across from him in a cluster of reporters from local outlets. She was beautifully clothed — Burkett pays meticulous attention to clothing — and her equipment bore the logo of New Haven radio station WELI. Burkett turned to the photographer standing next to him. “That is the best-dressed radio reporter I have ever seen,” he said. “Who is she?”

The photographer didn’t know, and Burkett didn’t introduce himself. But for weeks he listened to WELI, trying to pick out her voice. After hours of listening, he had her narrowed down to one of three people, but he couldn’t be sure which she was. The Hartford TV station had a news-sharing agreement with WELI, so Burkett had occasion to contact the radio station’s studio. “Every time I called over there,” he recalls, “I wondered whether I was talking to the lady from the chemical leak.”

Several weeks later, Burkett received a tip from the police department about a woman who had been stabbed more than 80 times and her body left in a dugout on a Little League field. He filed an exclusive story. That evening, the phone rang. The woman on the other end of the line identified herself as WELI reporter Margie Rice. “That’s a really good story you did on the dugout murder,” she said to Burkett. “Can I come to the station and get the tape from you?”

Twenty minutes later, the doorbell rang, and when Burkett opened the door, there stood the lady from the chemical leak. “Wow!” Burkett said. “So you’re Margie Rice, the face behind the voice!” She didn’t miss a beat: “Oh, you’re Newton Burkett — the face behind the face!” They talked for a long time that evening before she got around to recording the sound for the story about the dugout murder. Soon they were dating. They have been married for 18 years.

The Burketts have two children, Amanda, 6, and Newton Jones, 8, named after his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. “Because I barely survived grammar school with the first name Newton, I decided to give my son a bullet-proof nickname, so he goes by Jay,” Burkett says. “Of course, now all his classmates are named Hunter or Winslow.”

Burkett crosses the Euphrates River.

Burkett crosses the Euphrates River, outside Nasiriyah, Iraq, in April 2003.

Amanda and Jay’s father hopes that they will go to Columbia. In the meantime, they are among the reasons that he has chosen to stay at WABC, ABC’s flagship local station, instead of joining a national network. When he entered the news business, his dream was to be a foreign correspondent for a network, but that dream has, in large part, dissipated. He loves his job and savors his connection to his local audience, which at 6 p.m. every evening on WABC in New York is larger than the worldwide audiences of CNN and MSNBC combined.

“To this day, I still have people come up to me on the street and hug me and say, ‘I saw what happened on 9-11, and thank God you’re alive,’ ” he says. “When you’re on a local station for a long time, people really feel connected to you. It would be difficult to walk away from that connection I’ve established with so many people. You can’t imagine the profound effect it has on me when a stranger comes up to me on the subway and says, ‘I’ve got to give you a hug.’ ”

Claiborne points out that even as a local affiliate reporter and not a representative of a national network, Burkett has done serious and important reporting abroad. “He is not that local TV reporter who gets sent over there to do one standup on the Gaza Strip or the West Bank,” Claiborne says. “This is a guy who has studied and thought about international affairs and international relations and international conflict for a long time. Sure, he’s been a local reporter for his entire career. But I think that sells him short in terms of the depth of his knowledge and experience.”

Burkett in Jerusalem.

Burkett pauses between interviews with Israelis on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem on the eve of the last Israeli election in March 2006.

Burkett’s work has been well-recognized by his colleagues. He has won several of the most prestigious awards in American television news, including three Emmy Awards from the New York Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences; the Edward R. Murrow Award from the Radio and Television News Directors Association and the George Foster Peabody Award (shared with his colleagues at WABC) for his reporting on 9-11.

And New York is no easy market in which to be a local reporter. One day in May, when Burkett was to be interviewed for this story, he sent an e-mail warning about being “flexible about the meeting time and place” and “tolerant of the smoke fumes emanating from my clothes.” He was en route to Brooklyn to cover an enormous warehouse fire along the waterfront. Yet when he arrived for the interview at Felix, a corner café in Soho where Burkett is a regular, his hair was perfectly coifed, he wore a beautiful pin-striped suit and lavender tie and his English shoes were impeccably polished. He did not look like a man who had just come from a fire; he looked ready to go on the air.

Salat, Burkett’s friend from sixth-grade Boy Scouts, recalls having dinner with Burkett shortly after 9-11. Burkett, still shell-shocked, told Salat how he and Glembotzky had escaped into the office building that morning. When Salat recounts this, he adds some additional details: how a nearby AP photographer looked through a telephoto lens and watched people jump from the burning building, and how close Burkett was to the command center where all the fire chiefs died.

Burkett visiting Marines from New York.

Burkett visits with Marines from the New York area at their base camp near Nasiriyah, Iraq, in April 2003.

Burkett and Salat dine together frequently, and they always fight over the bill, each insisting that it’s his turn to pick up the tab. But this time, when Burkett went for his wallet, it wasn’t there. He had forgotten — his wallet had been in his bag, and his bag had been in the Ford Explorer and the truck had been flattened when the South Tower collapsed.

“It was really a moment for us,” Salat says. “Even a week later, that hadn’t left him. It hasn’t left him still. But that’s Newt. He pushes on. He takes the risks in his life that are necessary to get where he wants to go, and he pushes on.”

For Burkett, storytelling — especially that particular variety of thoughtful and ethical storytelling at which he excels — has helped him push on. And strange as it might seem to the majority of his traditional-media colleagues, it has been new media, that vast uncharted terrain of podcasts and blogospheres, that has helped Burkett find solace. In the past five years, Burkett has used the Internet to publish written accounts and reporter’s notebooks about everything from the Republican National Convention to the Iraq war.

Claiborne says Burkett used to make the same self-deprecating joke with some frequency. “I’m on television,” he’d tell Clairborne. “Therefore, I am.” Claiborne explains it as “a kind of knowing self-mockery. I think he’s always been a little embarrassed about being in television — because in part he’s an academic, or he thinks with the seriousness of an academic.”

Burkett in Umm Qasr.

Burkett and photographer Byron Blunt stand on the dock in the port city of Umm Qasr, Iraq, in March 2003 to cover the arrival of the first relief supplies. The two had just crossed the border to make WABC-TV the first New York local television station to report from wartime Iraq.

But on the Internet, where there is no producer standing over his shoulder and telling him he has just two minutes to lay out only the facts, Burkett has found a place to convey to his audiences the kind of academic seriousness — and the kind of intimacy — for which regular television has little time. A notebook from the Intifada coverage contains a photograph that Burkett took of himself looking into a small mirror propped up on the wall, his face carefully covered in shaving cream, in a room of what he called “the Gaza Plaza,” the kibbutz in Israel where he and a crew lived for eight days as they covered the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. “As fearless and defiant as the settlers were,” he writes of the Israeli settlers in the Gaza, “their traumatized children had absolutely no choice in the matter, and their screams were unforgettable. Principle carried a terrible price.” The notebook ends: “The history of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza will be written and rewritten for years to come. But it was thrilling to have been among those trusted with the first draft.”

Writing, Burkett says, has been the key to coping with the fallout of his experiences on 9-11. “I recognize that I have suffered from post-traumatic stress from 9-11,” he says. “You would be stoned not to have been affected by what happened on 9-11. But by writing about it, I have tried in the past several years since then to make that experience meaningful for me.”

Of course, even this assertion provokes a moment of self-interrogation. Burkett pauses. The questions flash across his face: What if it isn’t true? What if finding meaning in tragedy is inherently perverse?

What if there hadn’t been a door? What about the thousands of people for whom there was no door?

He resumes: “I hope that 9-11 has made me a more sensitive reporter, and that it’s made me a more sensitive observer.”

The tentative moral of the story. That ambivalent resolution.

“But then, I need it to have done that. I have to make sense of it all.”

Maggie Gram ’05 majored in English and African-American studies. She is director of communications for the New York Civil Liberties Union.





This Issue





Search Columbia College Today
Need Help?

Columbia College Today Home
CCT Home

September/October 2006
This Issue

July/August 2006
Previous Issue

CCT Credits
CCT Masthead