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Munich Terror, Up Close

Munich Terror, Up Close

For Sean McManus, the Munich Massacre in 1972, strikingly re-created by Steven Spielberg in his new film, is such a vivid memory that it seems like it happened only last month.

"I was there with my family … to enjoy the Olympics," recalled McManus, 50, who in November was named president of both CBS News and CBS Sports.

His father is ABC sportscaster Jim McKay, who was assigned to cover several events at the Munich Games.

"The Olympics were being presented by the Germans as a serene Olympics, an Olympics of serenity," McManus said. "Instead of police uniforms, all the security [personnel] wore light blue blazers. They were trying to project an image to try to live down what happened in Germany [at the 1936 Olympics hosted by Adolf Hitler]. They were trying to present it as a beautiful experience and security was nonexistent. If you had on a track uniform or a warm-up suit, literally you could walk right in. We were in and out of Olympic Village all the time, my sister and I and our friends."

McManus was 17 at the time.The drama of the Palestinian attack on the 11 Israeli Olympic athletes and coaches, their abduction and eventual murder, unfolded on the day between the gymnastics and track-and-field events that his father was covering.

Neither McKay, 84, nor McManus have seen Spielberg’s movie "Munich," but both said its release has revived memories of that horrific event during which McKay was on the air for 16 hours.

McManus was in the control room and a studio next to his father the entire time.

"No one over there in Munich, in the control room, had any idea of the impact or magnitude of the story back home," McManus said. "We were in a bit of a bubble there in the control room. … I think they just though it was a terrible story and that it was a major Olympics event.

"Nobody understood the millions and millions of people who were watching it. It wasn’t obviously as dramatic or as big an event as 9-11, but with respect to how many people were focused on it and tuned into it in the country, I think it was on a level of the same magnitude because the entire country was focused on this horrible event.

"It wasn’t until [my father] got home and saw the thousands of telegrams and letters and cards that people had sent him that he realized how much people were relying on him solely for all the information that was coming out of Munich that day," he said.

What happened in Munich was a new experience for most Americans, McManus said.

"You have to remember that most people in America hadn’t heard the word ‘terrorist’ or ‘terrorism,’" he explained. "It was a word that had never been used before to describe a person or an occurrence, and so it was completely and totally incongruous. It made no sense at all juxtaposed against the Olympics, which had had political controversy in the past but no history of violence or murder or kidnapping or hostage taking, any of that stuff."

McKay, in a phone interview from his home near Baltimore, said it was "before dawn I think" that one of the ABC producers alerted him that terrorists had broken into the Olympic Village "and killed two men and were threatening to kill one every hour."

"He said Roone [Arledge] wants you to get in here, get in your chair," McKay recalled, referring to the then-president of ABC Sports. "So I went in and got in my chair in the studio and I was in fact there for 16 hours."

McManus said that rather than have a member of the news staff anchor the coverage, Arledge "said he would have dad do it."

"[Howard] Cosell wanted to do it and Chris [Schenkel] wanted to do it, and there were newspeople who wanted to do it, and Roone said no, I want Jim McKay to do it," McManus recalled.

McKay was no stranger to breaking news events. He said he started his career "on the city side as a newspaper reporter on the Baltimore Sun, and so I had always stayed on top of the news and I felt very comfortable. I started out as a police reporter and then general assignment."

McKay said he entered television when the general manager of a television station who had also worked on the Baltimore Sun invited him to be the anchorman on the station.

"I said I don’t know anything about television and he said, ‘Neither do I, and I’m going to run the station.’ It was all a brand new thing," McKay said. "That was in 1948."

The movie, which opened this week in New York and Los Angeles, uses McKay’s coverage of the Palestinian attack to lend credibility to what some critics contend is a movie based on a fictitious book about Israel’s reprisal attacks.

McKay said he has not seen any advertisements for ‘Munich’ or its trailer, but the producers have offered to set up a screening for him and his wife "after the first of the year."

He has heard how the film suggests a moral equivalency in Israel’s decision to track down and kill the planners of the attack.

"I haven’t seen the movie, but if it equates what the terrorists did to the Israeli response, I don’t think that’s right," McKay said. "They were responding to a terrorist act; they weren’t creating it."

Israel’s consul general in New York, Arye Mekel, recently invited McManus to Israel to meet some of the families of the Israeli athletes murdered at the Munich Olympics.

McManus said his work schedule does not permit a trip now but one day he would "like nothing more than to do that."

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