Forty years later: the media and the Iran hostage crisis

Forty years ago this week, I traveled to Iran to cover the takeover of the U.S. embassy, an event that embarrassed the United States and the administration of Jimmy Carter.

What isn’t debated on this anniversary is how badly I and the rest of the news media reported what happened.

First, the hostage-takers weren’t “students,” the moniker that still sticks today. A.J. Caschetta, a lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology, provides some interesting background.

For example, author Tim Wells interviewed most of the hostages for his oral history, 444 Days: The Hostages Remember (1985). Few called their captors “students,” using various terms: Iraniansradicalsmilitantsterroristsgoonsguardsknuckleheads, turkeys, and assholes.

One of the key leaders of the hostage-takers was Hossein Sheikholeslam, who convened press conferences for the legions of international journalists that flocked to Tehran. But he hadn’t been a student since the early 1970s when he attended the University of California at Berkeley. His proficiency in English also made him suitable to interrogate the hostages. Sheikholeslam “may have been trained in interrogation techniques,” wrote William Daugherty, one of only four CIA officers stationed at the embassy on November 4.

Another ringleader, Mohammad Hashemi, wasn’t a student. He spent his time with friends forming a group called “Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line,” which gave orders to those who showed up to protest outside the U.S. embassy. They wore laminated photos of Khomeini around their necks and pinned to their jackets.

The hostage-takers “strictly allied with Khomeini and the new mullah establishment,” according to Mark Bowden in Guests of the Ayatollah (2006). As Bowden puts it, they “were all committed to a formal Islamic state and were allied, some of them by family, with the clerical power structure around Khomeini.”

Second, the news media didn’t understand how big the story would become. The foreign editor of Newsweek, where I worked, told me the takeover wouldn’t last more than a day or so. It went on for 444 days!

Newsweek didn’t put the story on the cover until three weeks after the takeover occurred and then only as a part of an overall analysis of the burning of the U.S. embassy in Libya, the Russian influence in the Afghanistan government, and Islamists taking over Mecca.

The U.S. television networks were so unprepared that only one ABC News radio reporter had a valid visa to get into Iran. As a result, ABC had exclusive coverage for several days, laying the groundwork for “America Held Hostage” and then Nightline.

Third, many journalists thought the religious government of Iran had to be better than the Shah. How wrong we were!

I will now say an act of contrition. I hope other reporters do the same.