Behind the Lines: Prized journalist

Like or loathe him, Nahum Barnea embodies the ethos of Hebrew press, the backbone of Israeli journalism.

idf israeli flag lebanon (photo credit: AP)
idf israeli flag lebanon
(photo credit: AP)
Nahum Barnea, who is to receive the Israel Prize next week for his career in journalism, is the antithesis of the 21st-century journalist. He doesn't do multimedia, and the great majority of his writing over the last few years neither has appeared on the Web nor has been translated into English. Nor has he ever been a permanent fixture on television. Indeed, the camera often reveals him as a tongue-tied, bashful figure. Despite being a writer, he hasn't published a book - save for two collections of his pieces of journalism - and to many Israelis, the idea of his having a blog would almost be sacrilege. For the last 18 years, Barnea has been famous simply for writing a weekly feature on Friday in Yediot Aharonot and another column or two during the week. And in an age when the demise of paper newspapers is seen as almost a forgone conclusion, he is one of the last reporters whose labors appear only on dead trees, yet manages to remain the most influential journalist in the country. An unscientific poll I carried out among reporters in their 20s, who have practically no memories of life before the Web, reveals that this 62-year-old, who still scribbles away in little notebooks, is the professional who most inspires them. One of the reasons for this, asides for his writing and his unparalleled access to the high and mighty, is that any reporter out in the field has met him somewhere. When almost every other grand old man of letters leaves his desk only for high-powered meetings and cocktails - and the stars of the middle generation usually limit their travels to the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem circuit or destinations served by business class flights - Barnea can still be found in the thick of things. Over the last few years I've rubbed shoulders with him not only in press conferences at the Prime Minister's Office and at the UN General Assembly, but also at settlement outposts, in Sderot during a bombardment, on cramped press benches in courtrooms and in remote political gatherings. Very few veterans still make appearances at the kind of events to which news editors tend to send their underpaid young minions. Yet Barnea does this every week, without fanfare or a retinue of drivers, cameramen and researchers. "A few years ago, I was press adviser for Shlomi Lahiani's campaign in the Bat Yam municipal election," Nava Inbar, a young media consultant, wrote in her blog after the announcement of his Israel Prize. "Barnea came to town, and it was so different, because I hadn't even invited him. He wasn't like the rest of the reporters, who felt as if they had to stamp their passports upon arrival." And Bat Yam is only 15 minutes from Tel Aviv. The admiration is not limited to the younger generation. "I first read him as a soldier in the late '70s," a former senior editor told me this week. "That was the first time I realized that there was such a thing as Davar [the now defunct Labor Party daily where Barnea spent the first 16 years of his career]. I then spent my last shekels as a student buying a subscription to Koteret Rashit [the much-admired, also defunct current-affairs magazine he founded and edited for six years], and to this day, the only thing that makes me cross the road and buy Yediot on Friday is his column." "There are scenes, moments and situations that I can't feel until I read Nahum describing them," said Ilana Dayan, anchor of Channel 2's Uvda investigative reporting show and a member of the committee that decided to award him the Israel Prize. BUT HIS being a guru to generations of journalists doesn't explain Barnea's relevance to the public, nor his almost mythical influence in the highest echelons of power. Commanding the front page of the country's best-selling newspaper and his anchor position in the Friday political supplement has a part in that, of course, but how did he scale that summit? His style of writing - a subtle blend of straight reporting, colorful descriptions, crafty excerpts from interviews, insider information, historical allusions and partisan, though not-strident, punditry - is without parallel in any Hebrew or English publication I know of, and is obviously another major contribution to his legend. But there are greater masters of prose, writers with a sharper eye for detail, greater wit and a deeper knowledge of history. So why are so many journalists consigned to obscurity after a few years in the spotlight, while Barnea has remained so popular over a quarter of a century? How has he occupied the post of national interpreter of reality for so long? If accessibility in journalistic terms can be measured by the number of ministers, senior civil servants, judges and generals who return your calls and bestow an off-the-record briefing upon request, Barnea is at the top of the list. How did he get there? Because of two personal traits - one admirable, the other arguable. To survive as a political journalist here over the last 40 years, a reporter would have to have been able to adapt himself to a radically changing environment, with the center of gravity oscillating between Left and Right, senior ministers averaging less than two years in one post, rapidly shifting alliances and rivalries, pillars of power falling from grace and new faces turning up suddenly, and falling out of sight just as quickly. Just think how many phone books Barnea must have gone through, the kind of motivation it takes to go out and make new contacts after every election, the stomach one needs for all those lousy meals in the Knesset canteen. Nonetheless, he has resisted the temptation to remain an armchair pundit, or to cross the lines and take a better-paying job as a government spokesman or private media consultant. The second personal attribute is the way Barnea has positioned himself as the perfect establishment insider-outsider. With impeccable Mapai credentials - his father was a senior Histadrut official and a deputy mayor of Tel Aviv, his mother the first spokeswoman for the police and one of the founders of Tel Aviv University - he never actually joined the party, but his early career at Davar placed him in the heart of the establishment. Since I was too young to read him then, I can't say whether his access suffered after the Likud came to power, but older colleagues maintain that the Likudniks were so unaccustomed to being approached respectfully that they fell over themselves to cooperate with Labor's paper. It's not that Barnea has been overly sympathetic to Labor or its members - he is just as scathing of the party's foibles as other writers - but while being critical, his writing has always been suffused with the values of the left-of-center "security consensus" that typified the social class that built this country in its first decades. His writing never overlooked other groups - he writes prolifically on the right-wing, haredim, Israeli Arabs, Palestinians and settlers - but it's always clear that he's crossing some invisible divide to connect with them. AT TIMES he has suffered for his positions. A few politicians cut him off; Ariel Sharon wouldn't talk to him for over two decades after Barnea wrote he was a danger to the country. After a column in which he accused Hebron settlers of being parasites, he was physically assaulted at a funeral. He was reconciled with Sharon before the latter became prime minister in 2000 as part of his advisers' campaign of rebuilding the old pariah's respectability, but the enmity of at least part of the settlers remains. At the evacuation of Amona last year, I saw dozens shouting "Nazi" and "collaborator" at him. I wondered how many of them were aware that his son, Yonatan, an 18-year-old soldier, had been murdered in a 1996 terror bombing. All these qualities have made Barnea into the most informative, accessible and almost always entertaining reporter in Israel. Shalom Yerushalmi, political analyst for arch-rival Maariv, put it well when he wrote that Barnea is a "combination of footwork and an extraordinary and unflinching writing skill. An eclectic journalist who locates seemingly unimportant details that help to build a compelling central story. Add to that the enormous amount of information that reaches him, the ability to sift and sharply analyze, and you've got a model of an almost ideal journalist." But Barnea also has his detractors within the media establishment. Recently he has been attacked for going easy on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. In a recent column, Haaretz's Ari Shavit blamed him for being among the journalists most responsible for Olmert's remaining in power despite the multiple allegations of corruption. Shavit has a point, and unlike others who have made similar accusations against Barnea over recent months, he comes from the same side of the political tracks. Barnea certainly hasn't been as critical of Olmert as he has of previous prime ministers. It would be hard to explain this as an act of cozying up to power, an instinct that Barnea has never shown in his work. His supporters will point to his individualism, which has led to a view that differs from the current anti-Olmert climate; his critics insist that his personal friendship with Olmert has clouded his judgment. The two have maintained a close relationship over the decades, but Barnea has steadfastly maintained that he has never allowed himself to become friends with a politician. In one recent interview he said, "There are wonderful people in politics, but I don't allow myself to enter into a relationship with them that will trip me up ethically." Indeed, in recent months he has repeatedly attacked his old rival, Maariv's Dan Margalit, for his close friendship with Olmert (though the two are now estranged), claiming that his professionalism was compromised by the connection. Margalit responded by saying that "Barnea should read some of his recent columns on those fighting against corruption." Barnea seems to have developed a taste for journalistic jousting and has picked a number of fights in the last couple of years with Margalit and his boss, Maariv editor Amnon Dankner, whom he has ridiculed in a number of columns, sometimes without mentioning his name. He also recently went after broadcaster-turned- MKShelly Yacimovich, accusing her of betraying the profession by jumping the fence so quickly. None of these fights is really important to Israeli journalism, but seeing the way Barnea positively relishes them, I believe that they show a school-boyish and refreshingly human side to his nature. He has also been criticized for not speaking out when Yediot editor Rafi Ginat allegedly censored investigative features into Sharon's circle and purged the paper of editors and reporters who dared confront him. In the past, Barnea had signaled his displeasure with Yediot's management by taking a week or so off, but in recent years he has remained compliant. I think the most serious question one should ask Barnea at this crowning moment of his career is: What is a practicing journalist, whose trade is in holding a mirror to the face of power, doing with a prize handed out by those very politicians we expect him to keep an eye on? Perhaps we should also be asking what the real criteria are for awarding an Israel Prize in journalism, and if such a prize should even exist. It's interesting to quote Emanuel Shilo, editor of the right-wing, religious weekly, Besheva: "I don't have any doubt of Barnea's professional skills. He knows how to obtain information and present it well. That might be reason for a prize from his peers, like the Sokolow Prize, but the Israel Prize is for a contribution to the nation. What has Barnea done for the nation in the last 20 years? Did he foresee the security results of the pullback from Gaza? The rise of Hamas? The weapons smuggling in the Philadelphi corridor? Did Barnea warn of the danger of Lebanon after disengagement? Of the downfall of Oslo? The intifada?" Putting aside the political direction of Shilo's questions, one has to agree that he is raising a valid argument. But then I also have to ask why I - and many of my colleagues - were so pleased to hear that Barnea was getting the prize, even though none of us is more than a passing acquaintance of his. What benefit a free press might bring to society is arguable, and easily outweighed in many eyes by the damage we cause. But since many of us still believe that, despite all its faults, the press is a cornerstone of democracy, then the ethos is crucial. Like or loathe him, Barnea embodies the ethos of the Hebrew press, which is the backbone of Israeli journalism. Barnea, with all his faults, is still the professional standard that so many of us aspire to. Until an heir comes along - and there is no one yet contending for his throne - he's the best we've got. I'm grateful that he's still out there with his notebook.