Investigative journalist Robert I. Friedman, whose uncompromising reporting provoked lawsuits and death threats throughout his career, died July 2 at Columbia-Presbyterian hospital in Manhattan at age 51. The immediate cause of death was cardiac arrest, but it was really his dedication: Robbie’s heart condition stemmed from a rare disease he contracted in 1995 on assignment for Vanity Fair in the Bombay slums.
Friedman, much of whose writing appeared in the Voice when he was a staff member from 1989 to 1995, was a fierce reporter whose work on subjects like Israel’s cooperation with the right-wing Falangist movement in Lebanon or Brooklyn rabbi-turned-Jewish extremist Meir Kahane earned Friedman—and the paper—the enmity of many hard-line supporters of Israel.
In the ever shrinking community of serious investigative reporters in this city, Robbie will be remembered as a dedicated pro who followed his reporting wherever it took him, no matter whom it offended or what it meant for his own career. In 1993, for example, Friedman castigated the FBI in the Voice for ignoring information it had developed on the Muslim extremists behind the first bombing of the World Trade Center, warning that without stronger action, terrorists would strike at the towers again. Though the story would cost him valuable sources within the FBI, Friedman published it and won a Society of Professional Journalists Award for Best Investigative Reporting in a Weekly.
Friedman got sued so often that he became close friends with the First Amendment bar in town. (It didn’t hurt that Robbie never made a serious error.) The lawsuits, such as those launched by supporters of West Bank settlers, were less concerned with winning a judgment than with draining a publication’s support through frivolous and expensive court action. Take comedian Jackie Mason, a campaign surrogate for then prosecutor Rudy Giuliani in his first run for mayor, who sued the Voice for $25 million after Robbie caught Mason using racial slurs against David Dinkins. Mason quietly dropped the suit later, after Giuliani had lost the race and the comic realized that his own voice on tape made his case laughable.
Death threats came first from right-wing American Jews, usually brought on by stories like “Oy Vey, Make My Day,” a 1989 Voice story about violence-prone Jewish fundamentalists. Friedman’s first book, The False Prophet, was a 1990 biography of Jewish Defense League founder Meir Kahane. Four years after its publication, a group of militant Jewish settlers physically assaulted Robbie while he was on assignment in Israel. Unfazed, Friedman published his second book, Zealots for Zion: Inside Israel’s West Bank Settlement Movement, later the same year, exposing the expansionist ambitions of many of the movement’s devotees.
After Friedman had left the Voice and won notice as a leading authority on the Russian mob in America, the threats started coming from mobsters, including one that prompted the FBI to ask Robbie and his wife, Christine Dugas, a reporter for USA Today, to skip town for a while. Friedman’s response was the book Red Mafiya, published in 2000, which today many journalists use as a reference work on Russian organized crime in the U.S.
His courage is even more remarkable when you realize that except for his six years as a Voice staffer and one season at New York magazine, Friedman’s career was conducted entirely as a freelancer. That meant that Robbie wrote about powerful people and placed himself in dangerous situations without the cautious restrictions so often imposed by editors and publishers, but also without the institutional buffers and personal protection that staff status confers. A short list of the sorts of people Robbie offended during his career—from international bankers, politicians, and gangsters to establishment journalists and fringe wackos—makes his boldness look almost reckless.
Robbie’s reporting had the impact of an inconvenient truth—it was never what you were hearing from the rest of the press at the time, and it often ripped away pleasant illusions that help the powerful to get their way. His writing appeared in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, GQ, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and many other publications, yet nobody ever told Friedman what to do. His independence and passionate sense of justice were transfiguring: Any of us who helped those qualities find expression should be grateful for the chance to have seen them pass by once.
Those of us who knew him personally will remember his boundless nervous energy, even during the seven painful years of his illness. Robbie contracted his mysterious disease while researching a story about women abandoned by their families to slavery in Bombay (the piece ultimately appeared as a cover story for The Nation). Robbie always said he was proudest of that story, I believe, because instead of afflicting the comfortable, as he often did so very well, this time he was comforting the afflicted.
The Fund for Investigative Journalism has set up a Robert I. Friedman Investigative Journalism Award in his honor. In lieu of flowers, gifts may be sent to the Fund at P.O. Box 60184, Washington, D.C. 20039.