Terrorism at the Munich Olympic games: how an event five decades ago has a lasting impact today

Broadcast to an audience of 900 million, it was the beginning of an unhealthy relationship between terrorists and the media

Written by: Ben McEvoy, Alina Kulesh with Rich Cooper

What began as the 1972 Munich Olympic Games quickly became a live broadcast of terror that forever changed the world. The organizers had aimed to overcome the dark history of Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics, whi ch were coloured by the spectre of Nazi power, by stressing the themes of unity and peace going so far as naming the event the ‘Happy Games’.

Despite this message, the Munich Olympic Committee refused to acknowledge two requests by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to compete in the Olympic Games. This snub inspired the leaders of the Black September Organization, who put forward a plan to use media coverage of the Olympics to draw attention to the plight of the Palestinian people and pressure Israel to set free Palestinian prisoners.

The first live broadcast of terror

Early in the morning of September 5, 1972, eight members of Black September shot their way into the Israeli quarters at the Olympic village. By 5:00 a.m. the terrorists had taken 11 Israelis hostage, killing one and wounding another. By 8:00 a.m. news of the siege had been broadcast by Bavarian radio.

The coverage that ensued was the first time that TV networks broadcast an act of terrorism to an audience of almost 900 million in real-time. Black September demanded a plane to fly the hostages to Egypt. German authorities schemed to ambush the terrorists and rescue the hostages. Initial reports indicated the police had succeeded, but the unprepared rescuers bungled the mission. The remaining nine hostages died horribly at Fürstenfeldbruck airbase just after midnight that same day.

Jim McKay of ABC News got official word of the disaster back in the United States —  during primetime no less — and delivered the terrible news.

“They’re all gone.”

The event left an indelible mark on the souls of millions. For Olympic athletes, their families, their countrymen and an audience of 900 million worldwide, the image of an unknown man in a balaclava became the defining image of the Munich Games. The Munich Olympic crisis became “one of the hottest news stories of the year” dominating the U.S. network evening news of all three networks for days ⁠— only to be superseded by the unfolding Watergate Scandal.

It was the first terrorist spectacle to be exposed to the public in such visceral, electrifying detail. And it was this spectacle that set in motion a relationship between the media and terrorists that has had an indelible impact on all of us today.

Media gives terrorists the attention they need to succeed

Terrorists require attention to succeed. American scholar Mark Juergensmeyer calls terrorism “performance violence” and notes "if terrorism is theatre, then terrorists want to perform where there are plenty of spectators in the seats.”  The success of an attack then is measured not only by the number of casualties and whether demands are met but by how many people witness the act itself.

After Munich, terrorists learned to attract worldwide attention through mainstream television in order to achieve this end. The relationship between terrorism and the media had become crucial to their success — and the media has almost always obliged. So why do they continue to cover terrorism so extensively?

The media makes money on how much engagement their content gets. More viewers mean more advertising or subscriber dollars, which means more profit. It makes sense that the media is eager to report — and even over-report  — on terrorist attacks and groups. In 2015, Priceonomics researcher, Nemil Dala, found that “regardless of the reason, currently, terrorism deaths are the single most heavily covered type of death per capita in the first pages of the New York Times compared to every other way a human can die.” 

Margaret Thatcher famously addressed this concern in 1985. She proposed a voluntary code of conduct among the media to "try to find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend."

Larry Grossman, then President of NBC News, believed that NBC should not be held accountable, stating “the job of the press is not to worry about the consequences of its coverage, but to tell the truth... and let the chips fall where they may.”

Recent studies have revealed that the media’s reporting actually elicits terrorist attacks. One report by scholar Michael Jetter shines a light on CNN, CBS, NBC, and Fox News and shows how a one-minute news segment about a terrorist act caused on average of 1.4 attacks the following week.

Terrorism is decreasing, while reporting of it is increasing

There’s a fine line between reporting on terrorist attacks and spreading fear. In fact, the coverage of terrorism has only increased, despite an actual decrease in terrorism worldwide, most notably in North America. What many of us may not realize is the underlying bias of how terrorism is reported, and how this skews our perception of the actual threat proposed by terrorists in our own backyards.

Today, the total number of annual terrorist attacks globally is 14,000 - 16,000. However, the vast majority of these attacks occur in the Middle East, North Africa and South-East Asia. In 2016, the US had 61 attacks (less than 1%), compared with 3,365 attacks in Iraq (25%), 1,615 in Afghanistan (13%), and 1,019 in India (10%), the vast majority of which are unreported in Western news.

fatalites from terror

Source: Our world in data

Western reporting about terrorist attacks almost always, explicitly or implicitly, notes a connection to Islam. Researchers at Georgia State University recently performed an analysis of documented terrorist attacks in the United States and the bias against the Islamic community. Remarkably, only 12% of perpetrators were Muslim, yet research shows that a terror attack committed by a Muslim receives approximately 4.5 times more coverage than if the attack was conducted by a white person.

The fear of terrorism outweighs the reality

The above type of inaccurate reporting sends an unhealthy and false message that terrorism is an immediate and probable threat to the public. This feeling of an impending threat has begun to outweigh the reality of the threat itself. It is felt beyond personal impacts and into the political realm, where the threat of terrorism is often used to feed political agendas and xenophobia. These flaws in reporting distort our view of the modern world, which in turn affects how we shape our policy and values.

Terrorism is a complex, multidimensional topic that merits more truthful and consistent news coverage. The breathless coverage of the terrorist events in Munich, which began as a brief glimpse into a terrible aspect of the world rarely seen by most of the west, has become commonplace and even more worrisome, dangerously inaccurate.  In this new age of user-generated content and massive social networks, the relationship between media, terrorists, and the audience has only become exponentially more troublesome.

This article was created for After Munich a documentary that explores the emotional aftermath the Munich Massacre over 45 years later. Visit aftermunich.com for additional exclusive content  for a deeper look into the rippling effects of Munich on us all.

After Munich premiers on documentary Channel on September 8 at 9 PM.

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After Munich

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