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German TV Host Admits to Possession of Cocaine

Michel Friedman breaks his silence on the drugs and prostitution scandal after lying low in Italy, and apologizes.

July 09, 2003|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

Berlin — Lacking his characteristic bravado, Michel Friedman, an acerbic TV talk show host and a respected Jewish leader, was contrite Tuesday as he admitted to cocaine possession -- the closing chapter, perhaps, of a lurid tale that has fascinated the German media with stories of wiretaps and prostitutes and charges of anti-Semitism.

It was a nasty fall from grace for a man who made his reputation by grilling politicians on one of the nation's most popular talk shows. But on Tuesday, the cameras were turned on Friedman as he ended a month of silence by announcing that he would resign as vice president of the German Jewish Council and pay a $19,640 fine for 10 counts of cocaine possession.

"I have been punished for what I did," Friedman said during a news conference in Frankfurt. "Drugs offer no assistance in your life's crises. They mislead you....

"I ask all of you to keep in mind that this incident is not my whole life, that this is not the whole Michel Friedman. I'm sorry, and I ask that you give me a second chance."

Friedman, 47, is one of Europe's most intriguing personalities. Born in France to Polish Jewish parents who escaped the Holocaust with the aid of industrialist Oskar Schindler, whose bravery was dramatized in the Oscar-winning film "Schindler's List," Friedman has become a forceful voice for Jews in modern Germany.

An interviewer known as much for his arrogance as for his intelligence, Friedman has been photographed with world leaders as diverse as Pope John Paul II and Yasser Arafat, and he relishes the glamour of celebrity.

His crime was discovered almost by chance. Police were investigating an Eastern European prostitution ring when wiretaps led them to the name "Paolo Pinkel." According to the weekly magazine Der Spiegel, Friedman used that name when he invited three Ukrainian prostitutes to the Inter-Continental Hotel in Berlin and offered them cocaine. Investigators raided Friedman's home and offices last month and found small amounts of the drug.

Friedman left Germany and lay low in Venice, but the ensuing scandal marred both his public and his private life. His talk show "Vorsicht! Friedman" -- or "Watch Out! Friedman" -- was suspended and his girlfriend, Baerbel Schaefer, also a talk show host, ended their relationship.

As the cameras flashed around him Tuesday, Friedman, daunted but nattily dressed in a blue suit, seemed to sense the irony of the moment.

"During my political activity and my work as a journalist, I have questioned people harshly," he said. "Now, I have to accept that this measure is also imposed on me, even though it's a personal matter."

Though prison sentences are imposed for narcotics trafficking in Germany, private recreational use of drugs in small amounts is tolerated. Prosecutors in Friedman's case are not seeking a prison term.

Paul Spiegel, chairman of the Jewish Council, accepted Friedman's resignation. "The drug affair is a human tragedy," he said. "But time heals all wounds. After a certain time, he will reach out for a second chance, and I'm sure he will get it."

Salomon Korn, the leader of Frankfurt's Jewish community, expressed similar sentiments. "He has shown remorse and has apologized," Korn told a German news agency. "He now needs some peace and distance.... He should get a second chance."

Friedman's case created a tricky morality tale for the German press, which has seldom had to confront the transgressions of a popular Jew. This nation still winces at allusions to its Nazi past, and any hint of anti-Semitism is quickly condemned.

Friedman's complex personality and his media fame, however, forced the press to pursue the story. It began slowly, percolating up from the tabloids to the gray pages of the respected daily newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

News coverage intensified over the last two weeks. Jewish overtones were few as the story focused not on Friedman's religion but on the failings of a media star known for attacking the political sins of his TV guests. "Why are you destroying yourself?" read a recent headline in the weekly magazine Stern.

Some Jewish leaders, including filmmaker Artur Brauner, accused the media and the prosecutor's office of exaggerating the case because of Friedman's religion. But Spiegel, the president of the Jewish Council, and others told German television that bigotry played no part in the case.

"If a Jew breaks the law, it is possible to call it a crime," Spiegel said -- not "an anti-Semitic attack against Jews."

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