Let’s Not Be Judgmental About the Journalist Who Kept Quiet About Racist Murders by New Orleans Police

Sometimes bad things happen in bad situations. That’s the message from some people that James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times talked to about the case of

New Orleans Times-Picayune photographer Alex Brandon

, whose news-gathering work in the Hurricane Katrina–wrecked city in 2005 excluded the news that police were killing unarmed black people.

Brandon witnessed the immediate aftermath of the

Danziger Bridge shooting

—when police gunned down six people, killing two—and endorsed the police account of the incident, according to his former colleague Mike Perlstein:

“He was backing the police and saying they were in a gun battle and they were defending themselves,” Perlstein recalled. “I asked him, ‘Did you actually see that?’ and he said, ‘No, no.’ I said, ‘We know from experience, we really need to wait and see what facts might come out.’”

In a different slaying, that of

Henry Glover

, Brandon eventually testified in court about having witnessed a police cover-up:

The photographer acknowledged that he had gone along with a police officer’s demand not to photograph Glover’s body (an “order” that even a federal agent on the scene, armed with a camera, did not abide by). He further testified that the cop, not long after the shooting, described the incident as “NAT” — police lingo for “necessary action taken.” The same officer (later convicted of burning the body) underlined the demand by swiping his hand across his throat.

Finally, Brandon acknowledged that, about a year after the storm and after he had left the Picayune, one of his police friends on the department admitted to him that he had shot Glover.

None of this information, Rainey reported, had been shared with Brandon’s newspaper before it came out in the courtroom.

But while Rainey quoted an ex-colleague saying “it was like he was a double agent,” Brandon’s past and present bosses approach the whole business with delicacy. His supervisor at the Associate Press, where he now works, told Rainey, “[H]is service since joining the AP has been appropriate in all respects.”

Well, as far as the AP knows, anyway. Unless there’s something he hasn’t told them about yet.

And the Times-Picayune?

“Do I wish he had made some other choices and decisions? Yes,” the paper’s editor, Jim Amoss, said this week. “But I also believe we shouldn’t so easily mount our high horse and pronounce judgment on the kinds of decisions that journalists under duress have to make.”

That seems wise and fair-minded, until you strip away the vagueness and plurals. It wasn’t journalists, but one journalist; it wasn’t kinds of decisions, but a specific set of decisions.

You could say the same thing about the police themselves, and the exigencies of a difficult and chaotic situation. Those officers had the job of protecting New Orleans; under duress, they decided instead to start shooting unarmed black people.

Brandon’s job was to tell the truth about what was happening in the city. Instead, he decided to go along with the cops.