No international story other than war dominated television news for as long as the Iranian hostage crisis. The seizure of the staff of the U.S. embassy in Tehran on 4 November 1979 marked the beginning of fourteen months of concentrated, dramatic, and controversial news coverage that affected both public understanding of the hostage crisis and government efforts to resolve it.
TV's treatment of the Iranian hostage crisis invites comparison with its reporting about a similar event—the seizure of the USS Pueblo on 23 January 1968 and the imprisonment of its crew of eighty-two (another crew member died of wounds incurred during the ship's capture). The North Korean capture of this intelligence ship got extensive coverage for several days on all three networks. Yet even when it led the news, the Pueblo seizure seemed to be related to the biggest continuing story at the time—the Vietnam War. Some reporters, such as ABC's diplomatic correspondent John Scali, told viewers that senior U.S. officials believed that the North Koreans had coordinated their action with the North Vietnamese, who were massing troops around the U.S. marine base at Khe Sanh. The beginning of the Tet Offensive a week later eclipsed the Pueblo story, although newscasts occasionally reported about the negotiations to free the crew. No one, at least on TV, counted the days (335) that the sailors remained in captivity. No Western journalist could go to Pyongyang to interview government officials or gauge popular attitudes toward the United States. Without such film reports, the Pueblo story simply could not hold a prominent, continuing position on TV newscasts. Film of some crew members did occasionally appear on the evening news programs. But the North Korean government approved its release; it contained confessions of wrongdoing and apologies, and the network journalists who narrated it made clear that the film was highly suspect. A few interviews with family members dwelled less on their distress or outrage than on whether the face or voice in the film was really their relative's and whether he appeared any different since being imprisoned. The Pueblo was an important story, but in 1968—a year of "horrors and failures," according to CBS's Harry Reasoner—it was not nearly as sensational or shocking or troubling as the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the violence at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, or the war in Vietnam.
The Iranian hostage crisis, by contrast, became a dominant story quickly and remained so throughout its duration, even during the 1980 presidential election campaign. Some journalists did not imagine that it would become a news event of such magnitude. Ted Koppel, who covered the State Department for ABC, thought that this incident, like the detention of U.S. diplomats during an earlier invasion of the embassy in Tehran on 14 February 1979, would be over in hours. Yet the Sunday evening edition of ABC's World News Tonight on the first day of the crisis showed some of the images that did much to stoke public outrage: glimpses of hostages in handcuffs and blindfolds, the burning of an American flag, and a photograph of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who reportedly approved the takeover of the embassy.
Network competition had a notable effect on ABC's coverage of the crisis. In 1977 ABC News, traditionally third in ratings and reputation, got a new president, Roone Arledge, who also headed the network's highly successful sports division. Arledge considered expanding World News Tonight to a full hour as a way of giving it more prominence, but local affiliates were unwilling to cede to the network an additional—and highly profitable—half hour. Arledge then experimented with late night news programming by airing half-hour specials with increasing frequency at 11:30 P.M . (EST). The hostage crisis gave Arledge the opportunity to secure permanent hold of that time slot. ABC, however, did not show its first late-night special until 8 November 1979 nor make it a nightly offering until six days later. The title of the show was both revealing and influential: America Held Hostage.
On 24 March 1980 the program got a new, permanent host, Koppel, and a new name, Night-line. It continued to provide daily coverage, even if the hostage crisis sometimes was not the lead story. Koppel hoped to use the growing capabilities of satellite technology and his skills as an interviewer to create "intercontinental salons" on live TV. Yet the discussion on the debut program was hardly genteel, as Dorothea Morefield, wife of a hostage, asked Ali Agah, the Iranian chargé in Washington, how his government could "continue to hold these innocent people." Some critics found such verbal confrontations contrived and mawkish, with news taking a back seat to show business. Yet television newscasts have long been a mixture of entertainment and information; Nightline expanded the limits of an established genre. And like ABC, the other networks covered the hostage crisis as a human drama as well as an international event, devoting considerable time both to interviews with family members and to the diplomatic efforts to secure the hostages' release. While ABC may have provided the hostage crisis with a melodramatic title, CBS's Walter Cronkite, television's most respected journalist, popularized what became the standard for measuring its duration. He added to his famous sign-off—"and that's the way it is"—a count of the days, eventually 444, that the fifty-two hostages endured captivity.
The Carter administration at first welcomed the heavy news coverage. Administration officials had many chances to explain to viewers that they were taking strong, but measured action—diplomatic initiatives, economic sanctions—to try to resolve the crisis without resorting to military force. Jimmy Carter could concentrate on his role as president, rather than as candidate facing a vigorous challenge for his party's presidential nomination from Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. Indeed, Carter conspicuously refrained from campaign travel in favor of a Rose Garden strategy that played up his responsibilities as national leader. Carter's approval rating surged from 30 to 61 percent during the first month of the hostage crisis. Never before had the Gallup Poll recorded such a sharp improvement.
Yet administration officials soon deplored the extensive television coverage. Hodding Carter, the State Department spokesperson, complained that news reports were complicating negotiations. White House officials found considerable evidence that Iranian demonstrators were playing to the cameras. Yet their efforts to shift public attention away from the hostage crisis simply would not work because of what presidential counsel Lloyd Cutler called "the constant drumbeat of TV news." Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher believed that television intensified public anger and frustration as it reported about the failed rescue effort in April 1980, described diplomatic initiatives that seemed ineffective, and relentlessly counted the days. Press secretary Jody Powell expressed his frustration at the end of one long day when there had been demonstrations across from the White House by two antagonistic groups that had shouted and scuffled. He crossed Pennsylvania Avenue late at night, walked into Lafayette Park, and unexpectedly encountered CBS reporter Jed Duvall. The reason for these prolonged difficulties, Powell blurted out, was "the networks with their nose up the Ayatollah's ass."