The Media and The Hostages: In 1979 and Today

News & Politics

It was November 4, 1979.

The President of the United States was Democrat Jimmy Carter. 

Carter was seen by many on the GOP side as a weak president, which was part of the reason Republican Ronald Reagan was making another try for the GOP nomination to face off with Carter in the soon-to-arrive 1980 presidential election.

On the Democrat side, the left wing of Carter’s party was so upset with him that Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, last of the stars who were 1960’s heroes the Kennedy brothers, made up his mind to challenge Carter for renomination.

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And then.

Iranian Islamic radicals had overthrown the ruling Shah. The original version of exactly what governs Iran today – Islamic mullahs – were newly in charge.

And on that November day Iranian Islamic college students, staunch supporters of the Iranian revolution, attacked the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking the 52 Americans on the Embassy staff as hostages.

The media of the day was on the story on the spot. En masse and daily. Time magazine would describe the chaos that suddenly erupted as an “entanglement” of “vengeance and mutual incomprehension.”

And without doubt the scene of Iranian students chanting slogans and  parading blindfolded hostages before cameras made for ratings blockbuster television.

Recall at the time there was no cable news. No CNN, no Fox. It was the broadcast ABC network that came up with the idea, after it became apparent that negotiations to release the hostages were going nowhere, to do something. 

That “something” was the creation of a brand new nightly television show airing after the ABC local newscasts signed off at 11:30 p.m. Now, every weekday night, anchor Ted Koppel would look into the camera, welcome the audience to the new show “America Held Hostage” and say the number of days that the Americans had been held prisoner as of that night.

The show was so riveting and successful that eventually, post-hostage crisis, it morphed into a regular 11:30 show retitled “Nightline”, with, of course, Koppel as its host.

The fact of the 52 Embassy staffers being held hostage stoked a serious fury with Americans. It became front and center as a major issue in the unfolding 1980 presidential campaign. Without question the ABC nightly media show, not to mention the rest of the media’s coverage both on television and in print (there was no Internet) were an enormous boost for the eventual Republican nominee – Reagan.

Then, a year after the start of what had become a 24/7 televised crisis, Reagan defeated President Carter in a 44 state landslide.

Now the students and the mullahs began to get nervous. Reagan had a serious reputation as a military hawk. What would he do? Quietly, negotiations suddenly began to pick up steam.

Then Reagan’s inauguration day – January 20, 1981- arrived. Within minutes of taking the oath of office and heading into the Capitol for the traditional lunch Reagan was handed a note. The hostages had been released and were being flown to freedom at an American air base in Germany.

All of which is to say, the media’s coverage of this entire event, all 444 days of it, played a major role in the entire episode. 

Why the history reminder?

At this very minute hostages, some of them Americans, are being held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip in the middle of the Hamas war on Israel. As of Friday afternoon, two had been released.

But the contrast between the media coverage of the 1979-1980-1981 Iranian hostage crisis and the coverage of the current Hamas hostage crisis is stark. Today’s coverage – in an era where cable news thrives as opposed to not existing at all in 1979 – is, relatively speaking, hardly seen.

Is there coverage? Yes. But the insistent, hourly-daily-weekly obsession Day X coverage of Americans held hostage that characterized the Iranian hostage crisis, coverage that arguably unelected a president and helped elect his opponent, simply isn’t there.

Why? 

Could it be that coverage of that kind would inevitably focus on President Joe Biden’s handling of this hostage crisis as it did earlier with President Jimmy Carter’s – and result in defeating Biden’s re-election as it did with Carter?

Or is it something else? Which is to say, is anti-Semitism raising its ugly head here, an anti-Semitism spilling into American streets and onto college campuses that serves as a cautionary flag to today’s media not to get too out front as supporters of Israel?

No idea.

But that said, it is abundantly clear that the media coverage of the Iranian hostage – relentless, daily, hourly – is nowhere close to the coverage of today’s hostage crisis in Gaza.

Interesting.

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