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German Media Handle Scandal Over Jewish Moralist With Care

Under investigation in a cocaine case, Michel Friedman may lose his bully pulpit on TV.

June 17, 2003|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BERLIN — The media here normally would be hyperventilating over such intrigue: An arrogant, moralizing TV talk show host is under investigation for allegedly possessing cocaine discovered in a raid after his "code name" turned up on police wiretaps of a prostitution racket.

But this is Germany, and Michel Friedman is a respected Jewish leader. Adversaries of the man known as the "TV Inquisitor" are relishing the sordidness -- with an air of restraint. His plight is front-page news, but adjectives are tempered and coverage more balanced than might be expected in this Rubik's Cube of a tale wrapped up in sex, politics and religion.

The 47-year-old Friedman is a pugnacious talkmeister, known for his ability to elicit from his guests rage, humor and much else on live TV. This combativeness -- which his supporters view as intellectual rigor -- is mixed with moral indignation over the failings of the country and its leaders.

He is an often-brilliant voice of the Jewish community, a glamorous personality who has shunned any hint of the victim aura that surrounded Jews for decades after World War II. A lawyer, Friedman is vice president of Germany's Jewish Council and a member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union.

These personae became enveloped in suspicion last week when the raid on Friedman's home and offices in Frankfurt turned up three small packets of cocaine. Investigators were tracking a tip gleaned from wiretaps in which Friedman -- using the alias Paolo Pinkel -- allegedly called a prostitution ring and invited three Ukrainian women to the InterContinental hotel in Berlin, according to Der Spiegel. The women, the magazine reported, claimed that Friedman offered them cocaine but they refused.

While narcotics trafficking is a crime that draws prison sentences in Germany, private recreational use in small amounts is tolerated. So is prostitution. But such dalliances would pose a problem for a celebrity who rails against the decline of society's mores.

Friedman has not been charged with any offense. He left Germany after the raid, reportedly for either Venice, Italy, or Nice, France, and did not respond to an interview request.

In Friedman's absence, both his supporters and detractors are ruminating over how a shrewd public figure was caught in such a mess -- and whether his reputation will survive.

Deidre Berger, director of the American Jewish Committee in Berlin, said: "It would be unfortunate if this controversy weakens the voice of someone who is a champion of human rights and an extremely articulate and eloquent voice who has helped lift the stature of Germany's once-marginalized Jewish community."

Salomon Korn, leader of Frankfurt's Jewish community, told a German news agency that an "envious person" may be behind the controversy.

Meanwhile, the media -- from the mainstream to the tabloids -- is treading lightly.

"The press is playing it very neutral," said Juergen Falter, a political science professor at the University of Mainz. "People are very careful not to be seen as anti-Semitic.... People don't want to appear politically incorrect. But if it seems to be cocaine, and he consumed it and bought it and did it regularly, this would be the end of his being a TV star."

Friedman represents some of the history and complexity of the German Jew. His parents escaped the Holocaust with the help of Oskar Schindler -- whose courage was documented in Steven Spielberg's film "Schindler's List." Born in Paris, Friedman moved to Germany and launched his crusade for human rights and the rejuvenation of Jewish pride in postwar society.

His brashness won him friends and enemies. The Frankfurter Rundschau called him the "conscience of the nation." The neo-Nazi band White Aryan Rebels recorded a song, "This Bullet Is for You," containing a death threat against Friedman. Today, he often travels with bodyguards.

Friedman interviews government officials, rock stars, writers and others with a style he refers to as "sharp and merciless."

Characteristic of his quest to encourage debate and be part of the story himself, Friedman's battle last summer with German politician Juergen Moellemann was a sideshow to the reelection campaign of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder -- and a barometer of German-Jewish relations.

A member of the Free Democrats, Moellemann attacked Friedman as a "spiteful man who fosters anti-Semitism." The remark was made at a time when Moellemann was behind a leaflet campaign that attacked Israeli President Ariel Sharon's crackdown on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. (Sharon has been a guest on Friedman's show.) Moellemann's tactics were eschewed by much of the public, but he was privately supported by Germans with similar sentiments.

"The Moellemann affair deeply depressed Friedman," said one Jewish official. "He was upset there was not more of a backlash against Moellemann for raising such anti-Semitism. It shook Friedman's confidence of his place in Germany and as a German Jew."

One week before police raided Friedman's home and offices, Moellemann -- who was under investigation for allegedly using $980,000 in illegal political contributions to fund the leaflets -- died when his parachute broke free from his body after he jumped from an airplane. Moellemann was an experienced skydiver, and police said the death likely was suicide.

Moellemann's obituaries were still being read when the Friedman scandal landed on the front pages of the nation's newspapers.

In an indication that coverage may become more aggressive, Der Spiegel asked over the weekend: "Is the media star just another cocaine addict?"

But Friedman -- who once told a German newspaper that the comment from politicians appearing on his show that most frustrated him was: "You will probably understand that I cannot talk about this issue now" -- is not around to address such questions.

*

Christian Retzlaff in The Times' Berlin Bureau contributed to this report.

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