Contra Iran

Looking back at media coverage of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, thirty years later

Thirty years ago today, Iranian students invaded the United States embassy in Tehran and captured seventy-one American diplomats, keeping fifty-three of them hostage for 444 days. The Iranian hostage crisis, as it came to be known, was a watershed moment in U.S. history. All at once, it symbolized the haplessness of the Carter administration; the hostility to the U.S. in what was then called the Third World; and America’s image of itself as weak and dysfunctional in the wake of Watergate, Vietnam, and stagflation.

Perhaps the longest-lasting effect of the crisis, however, was its pernicious influence on the American public’s attitude towards Iran. In particular, the U.S. media’s obsessive coverage of the hostage crisis encouraged Americans to see Iran and Islam as monolithically hostile—fanatical, irrational, and unappeasable. Thirty years later, these impressions largely remain intact, and color U.S. attempts to engage with the Persian nation and the Middle East at large.

“From the moment the hostages were seized until they were released minutes after Ronald Reagan took the oath of office as president 444 days later,” wrote Gaddis Smith, “the crisis absorbed more concentrated effort by American officials and had more extensive coverage on television and in the press than any other event since World War II, including the Vietnam War.” The quality of coverage did not parallel its abundance, however. “The Iran hostage crisis was covered at once too completely and not enough,” says David Harris, author of The Crisis: The President, The Prophet and the Shah—1979 and the Coming of Militant Islam. “No space was opened up for a rational conversation about the crisis.”

Instead, the media’s obsessive coverage tended to reinforce the public’s worst fears about the crisis and Iran in general. The news shows competed with each other for information about the hostage situation. Every night at 11:30 p.m., ABC aired a news program devoted entirely to the crisis. Called America Held Hostage (the show would later change its name to Nightline), it capitalized on—and contributed to—public hysteria about the hostages. On Day 142 of the crisis, for instance, the show featured an on-air exchange between the wife of one of the hostages and a surprised Iranian diplomat. Although The Washington Post called the episode “cheaply theatrical, mawkish and self-promotional,” reporters rationalized this sort of sensationalism as journalism in the public interest—quantity was quality.

“Watching ABC late-night was like attending a seminar on Iran,” Ted Koppel said. Americans could have used a seminar on Iran, but Nightline was certainly not it. The show revolved entirely around the Hostages and their fate, instead of concentrating on Iranian history, culture or politics, all of which Americans knew little about. In fact, many Americans encountered Iran for the first time during the crisis. (Even President Carter had to be told the difference between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, Harris says.) In the six years from 1972 through 1977, the three networks had devoted an average of only five minutes per year to material on Iran, according to a State Department analysis.

The crisis was rarely put into historical context by, for instance, examining—or even mentioning—the U.S. government’s overthrow in 1953 of the democratically-elected prime minister of Iran, or the U.S.’s nearly thirty-year large-scale support for Iran’s oppressive dictator, the Shah. Most historians think the Ayatollah was able to come to power not only because of Islamist teachings, but because his attacks on America resonated widely in a country suffering under a U.S.-backed despot. One strived in vain to find coverage of this on Nightline.

This would be only of historical interest were it not for the difficulties facing Americans today in their dealings with Iran. “The dominant leitmotif of the past thirty years between Iran and the United States has been constant hostility, and that is laid at the feet of the hostage crisis,” says Gary Sick, the principal White House aide during the crisis. Americans came out of those years with an exaggerated view of the threat emanating from Islamic fundamentalism, he says.

This pattern of media ignorance followed by frenzy would repeat itself in the days and weeks following September 11, 2001, when Americans were suddenly overloaded with images of Saudi Arabians and Afghans after years of the news outlets ignoring the Middle East. The result is a woefully uneducated public, alternating between obliviousness and panic about a region critical to U.S. interests.

As Sick points out, Iran has done little to dispel its image as a land of intolerance and religious orthodoxy. Its current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has made breathtakingly offensive comments about Jews, Israel, the United States, and the Western world. But, as illustrated by the hundreds of thousands of protestors who bravely took to the streets in the wake of the rigged June elections, Iran is a diverse nation, as much wrestling with itself as with the world. It is a tragedy that the American image of the country derives from a horrible but misrepresented event thirty years ago.

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Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing writer at Salon and the Christian Science Monitor.