The Portrayal of the Iranian Hostage Crisis by American Media and its Effects on the Presidential Election of 1980

Dylan Rosenfield

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Ted Koppel reporting on the 100th day of the Iran hostage crisis during ABC News’ “Nightline.” (Feb. 13, 1980)

The American media brought the Iranian Hostage Crisis directly into the America’s living room. Throughout the 444-day ordeal, ABC, NBC, and CBS increasingly sought to connect the American hostages held captive in the United States’ Embassy in Tehran with ordinary Americans, as the coverage of the crisis mushroomed on all three networks rather than receding over time, due to the continual state of uncertainty of the hostages. The media successfully portrayed the hostages as representative of the United States, and of American lives everywhere.   By bringing the Iranian Hostage Crisis to television screens across the United States every night, the American media dramatized the conflict and put extra pressure on the Carter Administration to act promptly, but despite the failures of President Carter to secure their rescue, the struggles of the domestic economy played a larger role in his losing the presidential election of 1980 to Ronald Reagan.

The American news media connected the American diplomats held captive in Tehran to ordinary Americans, making the public very concerned and invested in the hostages’ well-being and rescue. Media networks worked to make ordinary Americans feel as though they too were the victims of acts of terrorism, by individualizing the hostages and focusing on the private sphere of their lives as citizens serving their country.[i] Families of hostages became new figures in American public life, as they gave interviews for news networks, held their own press conferences, and attended commemorative events in local communities, effectively granting them “status as moral agents in the realm of politics.” The media successfully tied the hostages with domesticity and innocence, against a backdrop of terrifying angry Iranians who sought to taint the spirit of the United States, and that which it stood for. In the American media, “the hostages were identified with … emotions, and domesticity, rather than diplomacy, officialdom, or politics.” By depoliticizing the hostages, the media successfully identified the hostages as innocent private individuals under attack by radical militant Iranians, touching sympathy and inciting fury in Americans across the nation. Thus the media brought the hostage situation from thousands of miles away on the opposite side of the world into everyday life of Americans at home.

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The 53 American Embassy workers were held captive for 444 days after the embassy was stormed by a mob in Tehran.

The American media portrayed the Iranian Hostage Crisis as a direct attack on the United States, and on Americans everywhere, successfully dramatizing the issue beyond its initial extent. By providing such a high pedestal for the crisis to be viewed by Americans through their television sets, the media played into the hands of the hostages’ captors by giving the Ayatollah, his followers, and indeed all of Iran, “a stage on which to air their grievances against the United States.” This action gave leverage to the Iranians as they not only controlled the lives of over fifty American hostages, but also knew they could directly influence public opinion within the United States itself. The hostages became symbols of the United States becoming too involved in governing the decisions of the Iranian people, and thus the captors set out to prove that Iran was capable of defying the United States.

The siege of the American embassy and the holding of the hostages represented more of an ideological than personal confrontation, and the influence of the American news media directly hurt the United States’ standing in the conflict with Iran. Quickly soon after the seizure of the embassy, ABC broadcasted a special called America Held Hostage, which would later air as the well-known Nightline.[ii] The title of the show itself showed the perception and the goals of networks such as ABC and NBC at the time; rather than titling the special Americans Held Hostage, ABC portrayed the entire nation as being held captive to radical anti-American Iranians, casting a shadow of fear and anxiety over the United States. The portrayal by the news media of the hostage crisis as a direct attack upon the United States was perhaps best put on display by Frank Reynolds, anchor for ABC. Following the disastrous Operation Eagle Claw, a failed rescue mission which resulted in the death of eight Americans, Reynolds opened his news broadcast with a summary of the operation: “We tried, we failed, and we have paid a price.” Reynolds, like the rest of the media at the time, successfully turned the Iranian Hostage Crisis into an issue affecting Americans at home. ABC’s early detailed coverage of the crisis riveted American audiences, who in turn, “watched the evening news in unprecedented numbers in the first weeks after the embassy takeover.” President Jimmy Carter elevated the hostage crisis further into the public eye by declaring that the hostages’ fate was the top priority of the President.[iii] However, neither the White House nor American media officials thought in the beginning that the hostage crisis would drag on for as long as it did. As the months passed, rather than receding from the public eye, the Iranian hostage crisis mushroomed in publicity over time, as Americans grew increasingly anxious about the situation in Tehran, and news media continued to extensively cover the situation with daily updates directly into American living room television sets.[iv]

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Ronald Reagan presents his closing argument during the 1980 presidential debate.

American news media networks portrayed the Iranian Hostage Crisis in a manner that exaggerated the conflict and focused on immediate threats. At a time when most Americans had very little understanding of international politics, the media dramatized the hostage crisis in Tehran and broadcasted nightly updates with a greater sense of imminence and urgency than what was necessary.[v] On the sixth night of the conflict, ABC’s Nightline anchor Frank Reynolds said, “the crisis in Iran is more urgent than [domestic politics].” In its early days, the networks framed the issue in attempt to maximize viewership across the nation. In 1980, “coverage of the hostages in Iran took up more than 20 percent of all television news; on ABC, coverage averaged 4.1 minutes out of every 22 minute broadcast.”  The news networks clearly jumped on the opportunity to cover the hostage crisis for Americans back home. It was the first opportunity for news networks to draw viewers from across the nation, and the great length and continual coverage of the crisis attracted the viewers necessary to establish a late night news show. At the time, local news sources were the dominant way Americans kept up with politics, but in 1972, television established itself as the main medium for discussing hostage crises, with its coverage of the captivity and murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972.[vi] ABC especially took advantage of the hostage situation, as the crisis began at a time when the network was losing in the competition for viewership to their main rival NBC and Johnny Carson.[vii] All of the American news networks had strong incentives to maximize their viewership, and thus dramatized the conflict in order to attain the most viewers throughout the country.

The American media took advantage of the constant state of uncertainty of the Iranian Hostage Crisis to create an air of urgency surrounding the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. According to an ABC interview with Fereshteh Emamy, one of the American hostages who was released from captivity early, the Iranian captors did not threaten to kill or harm any of the American hostages.[viii] They were also all unarmed, and told the Americans that they “just wanted to stage a sit-in and they did not want to harm anybody.” The Iranians did blindfold and tie up several of the hostages, and they later paraded them in front of crowds and cameras.[ix] Such public displays of symbolism against the United States and its diplomats touched a nerve with Americans back home, and the media stressed the possibilities of imminent danger constantly facing the hostages. ABC’s Bob Dyke said that there was never an attempt to physically harm the hostages, only shame them publicly, and the American media made it easier to do so.[x] United States Secretary of State Cyrus Vance said on camera that, “the American hostages [would] be kept safe and well by the Iranian government.” But soon after the major networks put correspondents in place, they all began competing for viewership, and the great length of the crisis allowed for each network to create a living room drama out of the state of uncertainty surrounding the situation in Tehran. The media has the ability impose imminent action upon policymakers quicker than otherwise expected, and ABC and NBC’s nightly specials on the crisis did just that. The coverage of the events served the captors in their cause, providing free advertising for airing their grievances against the United States, in return for a thrilling drama that would attract viewers and thus dive profits. Proof of the ideological rather than personal nature of the conflict in Tehran was in the release of women and minorities who the captors deemed not representative of the American values that the Iranians sought to disparage. The reality was, the captors used the hostages as a method of attacking the United States at an ideological level, but never clearly had intentions of harming the hostages. Their goal was not vengeance, it was air time. Thus the American media aided the Iranian captors and their followers by providing them leverage in the ideological conflict.

American news media directly made dealing with the Iranian Hostage Crisis more difficult for the Carter Administration. The constant nightly television updates by media sources of the hostage crisis, coupled with the obvious lack of progress in securing their release by the Carter Administration, made President Carter to appear a do-nothing president.[xi] The media reminded Americans of their “inability after a long year to win an honorable release of the hostages or to avenge the wrong done.” Kenneth Timm, the stepfather of one of the hostages, said on camera in a meeting with First Lady Rosalynn Carter that he was frustrated ninety-three days into the hostage crisis, “to almost be told [the United States was] no closer to any negotiations than [they] were at day one,” (Nacos 26). The media successfully pinned the failures of the incredibly long ideal on the Carter Administration, since every night Americans watched updates on the situation, and never saw visible progress in securing the hostages’ release.[xii] While there were no obvious attempts made to harm the hostages, several American lives were lost during the crisis: those of the personnel involved in the failed Operation Eagle Claw. Unfortunately for President Carter, the media portrayed the failure as utterly disastrous and embarrassing for the nation as a whole, and Carter had more blood on his hands than the captors in Tehran. This reflects the overwhelming trend of media to focus on the immediate, rarely looking back at past causal events. After all, the nightly broadcasts covering the hostage crisis focused exclusively on events and updates from that day in Tehran, rarely looking back to events before the embassy takeover, and never taking their audiences back to 1953 when the United States essentially overthrew Iran’s government.[xiii] Most Americans were not even aware of this, and of course, the media had no intention of telling Americans that they may in fact be responsible for the events unfolding in Tehran.[xiv] Clearly, the American media sought to focus on the immediate issues at hand and not dwell on history that did not interest its viewers as much. In his article “Terrorism on the Evening News,” Tony Atwater argues that in the media, “limited attention [is] paid to historical, cultural, and other factors which may [give] rise,” to events such as the Iranian Hostage Crisis.[xv] President Carter learned quickly that the media’s portrayal of the crisis was directly affecting his public opinion, and he realized too late that “public opinion is ultimately translated into votes.” His inability to safely secure the return of the hostages throughout the lengthy 444 day situation did hurt his standing as president, however it was not the top reason which caused him to lose the election of 1980 to Ronald Reagan.

As much as the extensive and detailed media coverage of the Iranian Hostage Crisis influenced public opinion, it was not responsible for Jimmy Carter losing his reelection to Ronald Reagan, because Americans found domestic economic troubles to be more troubling than the hostage situation on the other side of the world. Americans in 1980 cared about, “the economic problems facing America at the time, such as high unemployment and inflation, (which) greatly outweighed the Iranian hostage crisis as the top issue facing the United States.” Before the hostages were taken captive in Tehran, a gallup poll indicated that inflation, cost of living, and taxes were the most important problems on the minds of fifty-eight percent of Americans.[xvi] At the beginning of the crisis, both the press and public opinion strongly backed President Carter.[xvii] However, Carter failed to provide a flag to rally Americans around like during past crises. But the bigger damage to President Carter’s standing was from the domestic effects that the hostage crisis had on the United States. As time went on, the oil embargo imposed by Iran worsened the American economy significantly, putting the national economy into massive stagflation.[xviii] A CBS and New York Times poll in 1980 showed that only five percent of Americans saw Iran and the issue of terrorism as the most pressing issue facing the nation.[xix] Tyler Houlton argues that this is explained by, “a lack of a deep understanding of foreign policy by the general public [which] translates to voter apathy in presidential elections regarding international events.” But more so, like previous elections, voter opinion was driven by the economy, and despite the spillover effect that the Iranian Hostage Crisis was having on the domestic economy through the oil embargo, American voters cast their votes based on their economy, which was being visibly hurt by stagflation.[xx] Republican nominee Ronald Reagan seemed to offer brighter hope for the future of the American economy, and his successful pinning of the shortcomings and failures of the United States, most notably Operation Eagle Claw, on the Carter Administration, helped solidify his electoral victory. Despite the detailed coverage of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, Americans still found economic issues at home more pressing in the political arena, and thus cast their votes in the 1980 election based on the poor performance of the Carter Administration in this field, and the hope of improvement under the Reagan Administration.

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The results of the 1980 election between Reagan (red) and Carter (blue)

The Iranian Hostage Crisis offered the perfect opportunity for America’s television networks to pave the road towards twenty-four hour news coverage. While the network executives could not have predicted the hostage crisis would last nearly as long as it did, they all quickly learned that despite being thousands of miles away from the embassy in Tehran, Americans craved the real life drama that was brought every night to their televisions. Americans enjoyed feeling more connected to their fellow citizens held in captivity, and became emotionally invested in securing their release from captivity in Tehran. The extensive length of the ordeal without visible progress ever made by the Carter Administration made his reelection campaign significantly more difficult than it would have otherwise been. However, like in previous elections, the state of the domestic economy was the ultimate determinant of presidential votes. But due to the coverage of the Iranian Hostage Crisis by American media, President Carter’s legacy was tarnished with his inability to free innocent Americans from captivity with the entire country watching.

 

 

Endnotes

[i] McAlister, Melani. “Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East Since 1945.” Berkeley: University of California Press 2005. p. 208.

[ii] Houlton, Tyler. “The Impact of the 1979 Hostage Crisis in Iran on the Presidential Election of 1980.” Georgetown University, ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing, 2011. p. 61.

[iii] McAlister, Melani. “Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East Since 1945.” Berkeley: University of California Press 2005. p. 205.

[iv] [iv] McAlister, Melani. “Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East Since 1945.” Berkeley: University of California Press 2005. p. 199.

[v] Houlton, Tyler. “The Impact of the 1979 Hostage Crisis in Iran on the Presidential Election of 1980.” Georgetown University, ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing, 2011.

[vi] McAlister, Melani. “Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East Since 1945.” Berkeley: University of California Press 2005. p. 205.

[vii] Houlton, Tyler. “The Impact of the 1979 Hostage Crisis in Iran on the Presidential Election of 1980.” Georgetown University, ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing, 2011. p. 60.

[viii] ABC News. “Nov. 11, 1979: Iran Hostage Crisis Video – ABC News.” http://abcnews.go.com/Archives/video/nov-11-1979-iran-hostage-crisis-11929103.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Nacos, Brigitte. “Mass Mediated Terrorism: The Central Role of the Media in Terrorism and Conterterrorism.” Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2007. p. 189.

[xii] Nacos, Brigitte. “Terrorism and the Media: From the Iran Hostage Crisis to the World Trade Center Bombing.” Columbia University Press, 1994. pp. 5-26.

[xiii] Monaghan, Peter. “The Lessons of the Iran Hostage Crisis.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2004. Academic OneFile. Web. 23 Apr. 2015. http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA147100184&v=2.1&u=tel_a_vanderbilt&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w&asid=82e2570b5ee147d9275da746f1b658b5

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Atwater, Tony. “Terrorism on the Evening News: An Analysis of Coverage of the TWA Hostage Crisis on NBC Nightly News”, Political Communication, 4:1, DOI: 10.1080/10584609.1987.9962805. http://www-tandfonline-com.proxy.library.vanderbilt.edu/doi/pdf/10.1080/10584609.1987.9962805. p. 17-24

[xvi] Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, “Gallup Organization Poll – US Public Opinion on Election 1980,” University of Connecticut, http://www.ropercenter.uconn.edu/cgi‐ bin/hsrun.exe/Roperweb/pom/StateId/QGMDxuQ7j_lLcOAEu8y_YLC_ZYNn1‐ 4H_g/HAHTpage/Summary_Link?qstn_id=111307

[xvii] Gary Sick, October Surprise: America’s Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan (London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 1991), p. 18.

[xviii] Houlton, Tyler. “The Impact of the 1979 Hostage Crisis in Iran on the Presidential Election of 1980.” Georgetown University, ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing, 2011. pp. 67-71.

[xix] Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, “CBS News/New York Times Poll – US Public Opinion on Election 1980,” University of Connecticut, http://www.ropercenter.uconn.edu/cgi‐ bin/hsrun.exe/Roperweb/pom/StateId/QGME_AQ7mZFLcOEBu8ym5mGOZYNnA‐4‐ zy/HAHTpage/Summary_Link?qstn_id=117240.

[xx] Houlton, Tyler. “The Impact of the 1979 Hostage Crisis in Iran on the Presidential Election of 1980.” Georgetown University, ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing, 2011. pp. 79-80

The Portrayal of the Iranian Hostage Crisis by American Media and its Effects on the Presidential Election of 1980