Many people are remembering ABC news anchor Peter Jennings, who died Sunday from lung cancer. He was 67.
Jennings was only 34 when he provided ABC with a unique perspective on the assault on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. His presence in Munich was actually a bit ironic.
Prior to Munich, Jennings had been a chief foreign correspondent for ABC News. He then helped ABC establish the first American TV news bureau in the Arab world and became the ABC News bureau chief in Beirut, Lebanon.
He was holding that position when Roone Arledge, then head of ABC Sports, recruited Jennings for the 1972 Olympic Games.
Jim McKay, who anchored ABC’s coverage of the unfolding terrorist attack, later wrote in his book The Real McKay: My Wide World of Sports that Jennings “had been recruited for the Games by Roone with the promise that it would be a nice vacation for him, a change from Jennings’s usual beat of covering the Middle East. Now, Jennings found himself closer to danger than he would have been in Lebanon.”
The odd twist proved fortunate for ABC and viewers, because Jennings was intimately familiar with Middle East politics, which had followed him to Germany.
Jennings infiltrated the Olympic Village, where the terrorists had taken 11 Israeli athletes hostage, killing two at the outset. The eight terrorists kept the nine surviving Israelis in Building 31 on Connollystrasse. Jennings snuck into Building 24 and camped out with the Italian team, hiding in the bathroom when police tried to oust reporters from the village.
Jennings had a walkie-talkie and a land-line telephone, which he used to communicate with McKay and offer a firsthand account of what he was seeing.
“We had a wonderful vantage point of the front door, so as the negotiators came and went, we could see precisely what was happening, but had no idea of the context,” said Jennings in a 2002 ABC Sports documentary, “Our Greatest Hopes, Our Worst Fears: The Tragedy of the Munich Games.”
Early in the crisis, however, Jennings accurately predicted that the assault was the work of Black September, a fringe Palestinian group.
“If I were to guess at the moment which of the commando organizations this group is to come from,” Jennings said on the phone to McKay during the attack, “I’d be most likely to narrow in on a group called Black September.”
“From Peter’s experience, he was surprised that they had killed someone at the outset,” wrote McKay in his book. “Usually, he said, they threatened much more than they carried out.”
Jennings wasn’t the only ABC man on the inside. Also on the scene was John Wilcox, a young producer. Wilcox had a walkie-talkie and a film camera, and he occasionally would talk to Jennings on his walkie-talkie. Jennings, in turn, would hold the walkie-talkie up to his telephone, so that McKay could hear Wilcox (and in turn the signal could be aired).
According to McKay, at one point Jennings said off-air to Wilcox, “John, please don’t call them Ay-rabs. After all, you’re on the air to the States.” No one had told Wilcox his communications were being broadcasted—until now, thanks to the Jennings.
Jennings covered the crisis in the village until the terrorists whisked the hostages away via helicopter to FÃ¼rstenfeldbruck Airport, where German authorities made the terrorists think a plane would fly them all out of the country.
Jennings finally left the village and joined McKay in the nearby ABC studio at roughly 1 a.m., “now attired in a neat double-breasted blue blazer,” noted McKay. He helped McKay fill air time with more information about Black September as the studio crew anxiously awaited word from the airport.
The news was tragic: All the hostages were dead. With Jennings there, McKay issued his now famous yet simple pronouncement, “They’re all gone.”
Jennings himself would later contextualize the day’s events, saying, “The Middle East—Israel and the Arab countries—is like one of the evil pendulums of history, going back and forth, back and forth.”
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.