Journalists, like lawyers and members of Congress, have become the sort of people ordinary folks just love to hate. In movies and TV shows, they're portrayed as obnoxious busybodies who are always sticking microphones in people's faces. And there are certainly enough real-life examples to support that negative image.
But if you want an illustration of what the craft of journalism is really about, consider the case of Robert I. Friedman. He's a freelance reporter who, at great personal risk, did the groundbreaking reporting on the Russian mob that lies behind this month's headlines about an alleged $10 billion money-laundering scheme through the Bank of New York.
The looting of Russia during the 1990s -- and the administration's acquiescence in that mess -- has become a big story. It's now what we call a "feeding frenzy," with news organizations scrambling to add new morsels of information. But for years, Friedman was out there nearly alone -- risking his life to tell a story no one seemed to want to hear.
More than a year ago, Friedman painted a detailed portrait of Semyon Mogilevich, the alleged mobster some U.S. investigators believe is at the center of the Bank of New York money-laundering affair. Friedman's May 26, 1998, expose appeared in the Village Voice, under the headline "The Most Dangerous Mobster in the World." Drawing on FBI and Israeli intelligence reports and his own interviews, Friedman described Mogilevich's operation in Eastern Europe and the United States.
Things began to get scary for Friedman in June 1998, after the Village Voice piece appeared. An FBI agent told Friedman the bureau had credible information that a major organized crime figure had taken out a contract on his life. The bureau didn't provide details, but the New York Times later reported that Mogilevich had made the assassination threat in a telephone conversation monitored by the CIA and that the contract was for $100,000.
The FBI advised Friedman last summer that if he had any money, he should get out of town. So he went into hiding briefly in Vermont and, as he says, "paced the floor for a while and then decided this was ridiculous." So he returned to New York and went back to work on a book about Mogilevich and other Russian mobsters, called "Red Mafiya."
The Mogilevich death threat wasn't the first Friedman had received. He had written a piece in the May 1998 issue of Details magazine about the Russian mob's infiltration of the National Hockey League, through extortion and manipulation of the many East European hockey players who have come to the West in the 1990s. That piece described the activities of a Russian mob kingpin named Vyacheslav Ivankov, who was convicted in 1996 on extortion charges and is serving time in federal prison.
Soon after the Details piece appeared, Friedman received a Valentine's card from Ivankov, covered with threats and crude obscenities. The FBI concluded it was a death threat. It was signed with Ivankov's name and cell number. "He had no shame," says Friedman. "He thought he was still in Siberia."
I got to know Friedman more than a decade ago, when I was editor of the Post's Outlook section. At that time, he was investigating the activities of a right-wing Israeli militant named Meir Kahane. In 1987 Outlook published a Friedman piece about U.S. contributors to Kahane's Jewish Defense League. Friedman was later assaulted by two JDL members near his apartment in Chelsea.
The Arabs too have threatened to kill Friedman. After interviewing the man who murdered Kahane in 1990, Friedman began investigating a terrorist network that was later linked to the World Trade Center bombing. The FBI told him that two members of this terror underground planned to kill him.
What makes for such a courageous person, at a time when so many reporters play it safe and avoid taking risks that could get them sued -- let alone killed? The answer, in part, is that Friedman learned early to rely on himself. He left home at 15, dropped out of college and spent five years bumming around the world.
Part of Friedman's secret is that he married a journalist, Christine Dugas, who had risked her own life as a reporter in El Salvador and Nicaragua and is as passionate a truth-teller as he is. "We decided a long time ago not to have kids," he says. "We knew it would be a mistake, given the lifestyle we wanted to pursue."
Major newspapers such as The Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal still do serious investigative pieces. But few magazines are willing to publish the kinds of stories that a free-lancer like Friedman wants to write. "Magazines are celebrity driven," he says. "There's hardly any place for me to publish my work any more."
We want stories like Friedman's to have a happy ending. But Friedman has a rare blood disease he picked up several years ago while he was in India reporting on corruption there. His doctors have told him there is no cure. He was supposed to be in the hospital this week, but he stayed at home working -- trying to finish his book on the Russian mob.