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Ron Brown died when his Air Force plane crashed into a Croatian hillside on April 3, 1996. Ten years later, the cliche headline reads like this, “Unanswered Questions Haunt Death of Ron Brown.”
The real headline should read as follows, “Unasked Questions Haunt Death of Ron Brown.” The subhead might read, “Journalistic Integrity Also Dies in Crash.”
I believe that I am the only reporter to have requested the Air Force’s 22-volume report, let alone read it. It falls to me, I fear, to use the occasion of the 10th anniversary to raise the questions that other media have not troubled themselves to ask.
Let me name some names. When my book “Ron Brown’s Body” came out in 2004, I flew to Washington to interest some key people in its newsworthy elements. If nothing else, the fact that Brown died to broker a sweetheart deal on behalf of the newly notorious Enron should have gotten their attention. There was, of course, much more.
The one person I most wanted to talk with was Colby King, the minority affairs reporter for the Washington Post. I scheduled a breakfast meeting with him at the Madison, right across the street from the Post on May 14. I built the rest of my schedule around that meeting.
I had gotten a sense of the story’s importance in the black community a few weeks earlier at my local, central city Post Office. The clerk, a Morgan Freeman look-alike, asked me if the packages I was sending were books. When I said, “Yes,” he asked me if I had written them. I said “Yes” again. “Oh, what are they about?” he asked amiably. “About the life and death of Ron Brown?” I answered.
The clerk slowly looked up from what he was doing and asked me with cinematic coolness, “Did they kill him?” The other clerks and customers heard the exchange. And for the next 10 minutes, all work came to a halt while I answered his question. That is why I contacted Colby King first.
Interest in the black community had remained keen despite the fact that the media had not touched the Ron Brown story in more than six years. How the story vanished without resolution is worth a book in itself.
Twenty months after the crash, on Dec. 3, 1997, the conservative Pittsburgh Tribune-Review broke a story headlined, “Experts Differ on Ron Brown Head Wound.” The article covered many of the more damning details of the case, including the “lead snowstorm” on Brown’s head X-rays and what an Armed Forces Institute of Pathology doctor matter-of-factly called “an apparent gunshot wound.”
One does well to remember that during the Clinton years, the major media’s reflex was to slander whistleblowers. And so predictably, on Dec. 6, Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post gleefully cited the Tribune-Review’s conservative leanings and repeated the obvious fact that the pathologist in question had not himself examined the body.
If Kurtz or the AFIP thought the outbreak had been contained, they were in for a surprise. In a refreshingly noble gesture, two other pathologists who had been on the scene and the forensic photographer who discovered the hole in Brown’s head came forward to support the claim.
Although the mainstream media were still avoiding the subject, except to discredit it, the story – like some rogue salmon – made an unusual jump from the conservative media stream to the black-oriented one.
On Dec. 11, the Chicago Independent Bulletin ran a story headlined “Pastor Demands Investigation into Late Ron Brown’s Death.” Two days later, the influential Baltimore Afro-American ran a lengthy front-page story, “Brown Head Injury Suspected Bullet Wound.” On Dec. 18, the Associated Press reported that NAACP honcho Kweisi Mfume was now taking the Brown case to the White House and demanding answers.
The mainstream media largely ignored Mfume. But there was one black leader neither the media nor the White House could ignore. That was Jesse Jackson, and he came forward on Jan. 5. In early 1998, Jackson still had the perceived moral force to shake up Washington, and now he was exerting that force to call for an investigation.
With Jackson on board, reporters finally raised the Brown question at a press conference. They obviously struck a nerve. “It’s time to knock this stuff off,” snapped press secretary Mike McCurry. “I’m not going to talk about this further or take any further questions on the subject.”
Brown confidante Nolanda Butler Hills raises a good point on White House stonewalling. “With one phone call, President Clinton could have made sure that a comprehensive independent investigation into Ron’s death was conducted after the gunshot issue was raised,” she observes. “For all anyone in the world knew at that point, it could have been a foreign government plot to kill Clinton administration officials, and who would be next?
To a person, establishment reporters refused to challenge the White House. Think about this. Three military pathologists and a forensic photographer had risked their careers to expose a likely bullet hole in Brown’s head, the destruction of the head X-rays, the apparent “lead snowstorm” in a photograph of those X-rays, and a hasty burial without benefit of autopsy or forensic testing. And yet, none of this interested these reporters enough to even request the Air Force’s report on the “inexplicable” crash of a plane carrying an embattled Commerce secretary in a war-torn region.
Even without their help, the story had enough power and biracial potential to shake Washington to its foundation. With momentum still building in the black community, the Washington Afro-American ran a lengthy front-page story on Jan. 17 with new revelations from the forensic photographer.
Then, the unexpected happened. On that same day – and in that same city – Bill Cinton denied under oath any relationship with the then-unknown Monica Lewinsky. If Newsweek was willing to suppress what it knew about Lewinsky, Matt Drudge was not. Within days, the Monica tale had inundated the land and left every other news story gasping for breath.
Jesse Jackson had a choice to make. He could either pick away at the administration on a story that had just lost its legs, or he could come to the besieged president’s aid.
Nothing if not clever, Jesse Jackson chose to embrace the president once more, and the Ron Brown story died as suddenly as Brown had.
The night before I was to meet with Colby King in 2004, I got an e-mail. He had cancelled the meeting, no explanation offered, no future date suggested. No other major media person would talk to me either, not even the New York Times, which lost a reporter in the Brown crash.
To their credit, several prominent black broadcasters hung tough – Joe Madison and Dick Gregory most notably. With their support, the book remained at the No. 2 spot on the black best-seller list for months. Several of the black broadcasters who put me on the air told me they had been under enormous pressure not to. That pressure was coming from Democratic sources, it being an election year and I, a supposed plant from the Republican National Committee.
But 2005 was not an election year. When I learned that Ron Brown’s son, Michael, was now running for mayor of Washington, D.C., I called the Washington media once again, and not just Colby King, but other reporters at the Post and elsewhere. As I told them, I had hard, tangible evidence that Ron Brown, shortly before his fatal trip, had made a desperate plea to Bill Clinton to keep Michael from going to prison.
“Forget about any connection between that plea and Brown’s subsequent trip to Croatia,” I told them, “ought not Michael’s troubled past be subject to scrutiny, now that he’s a candidate.”
The evidence was undeniable. After his father’s death, the Clinton Justice Department had let Michael cop a misdemeanor plea on campaign finance violations. But, in fact, prosecutors had had more than enough evidence to nail Michael on any number of felony charges.
The establishment media were not interested. Amazingly, in its coverage of Michael Brown’s mayoral announcement, the Washington Post chose not even to mention his election fraud conviction.
When Rob Redding, a black reporter with the Washington Times, tried to get Michael to talk about my book, he blew him off, saying I was “not credible.” By the standards of the Washington Post, Michael would seem to be right.
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