On The Media: Photographer obscured full picture after Hurricane Katrina

[14 April 2011]

By James Rainey

Los Angeles Times (MCT)

NEW ORLEANS — Many local institutions cracked or crumbled after Hurricane Katrina, but the journalists at the New Orleans Times-Picayune soldiered on. In the sad, chaotic days after the storm and in the daunting years that followed, they made sure their city’s story was told.

Today, more than five years later, the newspaper’s reporters, editors and photographers continue to push for a full accounting of the disaster, most recently with an award-winning series (in partnership with ProPublica, the nonprofit newsroom) about multiple cases of extreme police misbehavior.

So it came as both a shock and a blow to the paper’s sense of common purpose to learn in recent months that one erstwhile member of the Times-Picayune team, photographer Alex Brandon, strayed from the mission. From his own testimony in a trial last fall against several New Orleans officers, it became clear that Brandon withheld much of what he knew about the violent, rogue policing inflicted on some African-American residents after the storm.

Brandon left the paper in 2006 and now works for the Associated Press in Washington, D.C., where, among other things, he has been assigned to shoot the White House.

It’s not hard online to find the photographer’s pictures of President Barack Obama — riding a bike, speaking at a briefing, bodysurfing in Hawaii.

There may not be anything to be done about what’s past. But, before Brandon moves on entirely, his former colleagues wish they could get answers to a few questions: Why didn’t he tell them more of what he saw? Is there anything more he needs to tell them about what the New Orleans police did after Katrina? Does he have any regrets?

It’s hard to say whether they’ll ever get the answers to those questions, as Brandon — a street-hardened photographer long known for his friendships with police and affinity for high-adrenaline ride-alongs — has not talked outside the courtroom about his post-Katrina experiences.

Brandon referred an inquiry this week to his supervisors. John Daniszewski, a senior managing editor at the news service, said that AP couldn’t comment on the photographer’s activities while he was at the Times-Picayune. “And his service since joining the AP has been appropriate in all respects,” Daniszewski added.

Still, some New Orleans news veterans aren’t ready to let the matter entirely alone. “Rather than say, ‘Everything about Katrina was horrible, let’s forget all about it,’ I think there are important lessons to be learned,” said Mike Perlstein, a former Times-Picayune police reporter who is now an investigative editor at the local CBS affiliate. “I would really like to have a talk with him and hear his point of view. I think it might provide, maybe, a cautionary tale.”

Government control and civility began to unwind in the hours and days after the August 2005 storm. Even much of the Times-Picayune’s staff fled for safer ground as floodwaters inundated the paper’s headquarters. But a skeletal staff led by one editor, David Meeks, committed to remain in the heart of the city for the duration, filing eyewitness accounts of disarray but also debunking some of the most extreme accounts — that bodies were being stacked like cordwood and that criminals routinely fired on rescue helicopters.

Brandon embedded himself immediately with a special police unit and had little contact with his colleagues for days. It’s a measure of how close the photographer got to the police action during the catastrophe that several of his photos of police — staking out alleged looters, meeting in urgent strategy sessions, responding to a downed aircraft — grace the newspaper’s entry for a Pulitzer Prize for local reporting.

Though it would only become clear in court five years later how much the photographer really witnessed, his colleagues noticed during the height of the disarray that his default position was that the police were doing what they needed to do.

About a week after the storm, police radios crackled at an impromptu headquarters outside Harrah’s casino in downtown New Orleans: Half a dozen alleged looters and snipers had been shot by police. No officers injured. A cheer arose from police commanders, at what seemed to authorities to be a turning point against lawlessness.

Perlstein recalls that Brandon told him at the time that he had come on that shooting, atop the Danziger Bridge, not long after it happened. “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.’ “

The facts about the Danziger case proved hideous: White police opened fire on a couple of groups of African-American flood victims fleeing over the bridge from the largely lawless and flooded east side of the city. The police fire hit six civilians, killing two of them, but it took years for it to become clear that the dead and wounded had posed no threat.

His colleagues had no reason for more serious concerns about Brandon until last November, when the photographer was called to testify in another post-Katrina excessive force case. The death of Henry Glover also came without apparent provocation: a cop shooting the suspected looter and his colleagues covering it up. Brandon helped prosecutors draw the picture of the confrontation, especially between police and a couple of Glover’s friends who tried to come to his aid.

The photographer’s testimony landed like a stun grenade, as much for how it exposed his earlier silence as for how it implicated his police pals. 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 obey. 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 Times-Picayune, one of his police friends on the department admitted to him that he had shot Glover.

A jury convicted three officers in the case, including his friend, Officer David Warren. But what some of his former colleagues still can’t quite fathom is that Brandon did not say anything to them about any of it. Not at the time. Not as victims first raised accusations of excessive force. Not when an editor specifically asked about the Glover case.

Meeks, the former Times-Picayune journalist who is now an editor in the Los Angeles Times’ Washington bureau, said other journalists quickly told their colleagues when police seemed to step out of line. One snapped a photo of an officer, in full uniform, balancing a huge stack of DVDs he had just looted from a Wal-Mart.

“There are certain things that happened that you just had to talk about,” said Meeks. “All of this good work was done by everyone and at the end of the day it was like he was a double agent. People are just heartbroken about it at the paper.”

The Times-Picayune covered the testimony. One of its columnists, Jarvis DeBerry, wondered in print how much sooner justice might have been served if the photographer, known for his physical courage, had shown a matching moral courage.

Yet the Times-Picayune journalists I spoke to about Brandon, no matter how critical, weren’t sure anything could or should be done now. They want the failure remembered but aren’t in a particularly vindictive mood.

“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.”

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(Reach James Rainey at james.rainey@latimes.com or on Twitter @latimesrainey.)

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/139576-on-the-media-photographer-obscured-full-picture-after-hurricane-katr/