When news broke that President Trump would be recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the media was quickly inundated with uncritically-quoted dire predictions of violent backlash across the Middle East. One week later, protests against the move have largely petered out, and mass unrest has not materialized, leaving reporters to awkwardly explain why. NBC now has an explainer on “Why Trump’s provocative Jerusalem move hasn’t sparked an intifada.” A representative headline in Vox reads: “Trump’s Jerusalem move was supposed to destabilize the entire Middle East. It didn’t.”
There are many factors that contributed to this media failure, and one of them is definitely media bias on Israel/Palestine. Just not the kind you think.
Traditionally, partisans accuse the press of being biased toward one side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Entire cottage industries exist in both camps to police the media’s purported prejudice. But the misbegotten coverage of Trump’s Jerusalem move reveals a different sort of bias: towards conflict and action. It is a narrative bias rather than an ideological one. The status quo, after all, makes for boring copy and unexciting stories. In the case of Jerusalem, the media’s craving for clashes is perfectly captured in an anecdote reported by The Atlantic’s Emma Green, one of the few reporters on the ground who did not buy into the industry’s apocalyptic predictions:
On Friday, it seemed that every journalist in Jerusalem was waiting for something to happen at the Damascus Gate in the Old City—one of the most popular entrances Muslims use to reach the famous Al-Aqsa mosque for Friday afternoon prayers, and a common site for big protests. Yet the resulting melee was not the massive demonstration everyone seemed to be waiting for…
The area outside Damascus Gate is literally set up like a stage: Big steps lead down on three sides to the lowered platform where people emerge from the Old City. A few dozen people stood on the steps and chanted in Arabic, holding a sign featuring a truck that called on America to “dump Trump” and another sign showing Trump’s lips as urinals. A throng of journalists surrounded this group, outnumbering them roughly three-to-one. As protesters moved, the cameras shifted around them, moving like a flock of birds near a power line. Most Palestinians, however, went home.
In other words, much of what the media would later present to viewers and readers abroad from Jerusalem’s post-Trump aftermath was staged for journalists’ benefit. As a result, initial press accounts greatly inflated the actual unrest in the city itself, which barely materialized in the first place and quickly dissipated. Thus, the media both predicted and reported a largely illusory outcry.
This is not a new phenomenon. The combination of the massively disproportionate number of journalists in Israel/Palestine with the relative paucity of actual action on the ground inevitably leads to magnification of every solitary spark—even when it is not actually newsworthy, and even when it is largely staged. Oversaturation of reporters leads to inflation of coverage.
As former Associated Press Jerusalem reporter Matti Friedman wrote in 2014:
The volume of press coverage that results, even when little is going on, gives this conflict a prominence compared to which its actual human toll is absurdly small. In all of 2013, for example, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict claimed 42 lives—that is, roughly the monthly homicide rate in the city of Chicago. Jerusalem, internationally renowned as a city of conflict, had slightly fewer violent deaths per capita last year than Portland, Ore., one of America’s safer cities. In contrast, in three years the Syrian conflict has claimed an estimated 190,000 lives, or about 70,000 more than the number of people who have ever died in the Arab-Israeli conflict since it began a century ago.
In the case of Jerusalem, it seems likely that the media’s overemphasis on Israel’s centrality led to similarly mistaken assumptions about how Trump’s pronouncement would inflame the entire region. As it turns out, that Israel-obsessed region existed more in the minds of the media than in the actual Middle East, which has bigger problems on its hands.