Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Did balanced reporting of the Munich Olympics memorial service require making a case for the terrorists?

Calls for an observation of a moment of silence at this year's Olympic games in London to commemorate Israeli athletes slain 40 years ago in Munich brought to mind the following coverage broadcast at the time by ABC News. Start the video at 3:06 to listen to Peter Jennings report on the memorial service held the day after the massacre.

[Viewable at YouTube here.]

Jennings starts his report by stating that the Israeli athletes had been "slain yesterday during an abortive attempt by Palestinian guerrillas to gain the release of Arabs held prisoner in Israel", a phrase which perfectly embodies how, in the name of balanced reporting, a journalist can (either intentionally or not) rationalize acts of evil. Undoubtedly, the terrorists responsible for the atrocities in Munich issued demands, but did one of those demands merit repeating in the lede of a brief report on a memorial service for the victims?

Jennings goes on to state that representatives from virtually all countries participating in the Olympics attended the service, then says that "Arab athletes did not attend, though, in many cases, because they were bound by political constraints over which they had no control". Jennings fails to state how he knows that some Arab athletes wanted to attend the service. He also fails to state what constraints were placed upon them or who imposed them. If he knew of Arab governments forbidding their Olympic teams from attending the service, he should have reported that information explicitly, rather than merely implying that was the case. By reporting in these vague terms, Jennings left the impression that some unspecified Arab athletes wanted to attend the service, without examining why not a single one of them did.

While Jennings' report was otherwise professionally handled, those two instances of what feel like special pleading feel very forced, as if Jennings intended to make the criminals who were responsible for the massacre and those who refused to commemorate the victims seem a bit more sympathetic. That made the saddest moment in the history of the Olympics a sad moment in the history of broadcast news.

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