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Shaping the Minds of Americans: The Media and the Iran Hostage Crisis

A Historical Research Essay

"The days after September 11th."

This phrase has emerged nationally as its own political shorthand for a positive moment of comity in the United States that occurred after the devastating terrorist attacks on American soil. The days after 9/11 are generally described as days of unity, when Americans came together and supported each other and their nation. This unity can be tracked through the approval ratings of President George W. Bush which were the highest Gallup’s approval ratings in history with nearly nine in ten Democrats and independents approving of the Republican president. It was not until one year later when significant changes had occurred in approval ratings and when the nation returned to its former habit of division; so, the question remains, how did the nation persist in unity for such a period? Simply put, it was the power of American media. The coverage of the events on September 11, 2001 is just one example of how the media gravitates towards harmony and peace within the nation when faced with true terror.

This same compassion is seen within the media coverage of one of America’s first encounters with terrorism: The Iran Hostage Crisis. On November 4, 1979, terror erupted in the capital of Iran. Fueled by the revolutionary sentiment in the nation, a group of young Islamic students seized the United States Embassy and took 66 American workers hostage, announcing they would not be released until the Shah of Iran was returned from his exile in the U.S. The seizure was a dramatic way for the revolutionaries to declare a break with Iran’s past and an end to American interference in its affairs and strategically raise the intra and international profile of the revolution’s leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Iran’s revolutionary government announced its sympathy for the students and soon it became obvious to the American people just how popular this takeover in Iran became.

Several historians have considered the role the American media played during this plight, each claiming it sentimentalized the foreign upheaval. In his dissertation, Ralph Dowling explains how the media often inherently personalizes news, especially in the instance of Iran when journalists were motivated by fear, humiliation, and a desire to conserve America’s image as a lawful and righteous nation. Daniel Strieff, while illustrating different campaigns that swept over the nation during this disaster period, presents how the exposure of hostage family members in the media humanized the hostage drama even further and magnified hardening American attitudes towards Iran. More broadly, using the Iran Hostage Crisis as one example, Brigitte Nacos argues that when the United States is faced with terrorism, the events have more publicity, are more emotion-based, and generate greater political heat than other developments. Finally, Paul Frazier examines the extreme anti-Arab propaganda in the United States fueled by the media and shows how, although it escalated during events like the Iran Hostage Crisis, the propaganda has traveled through the decades and into the 21st century, still holding the power to sculpt the minds of ordinary citizens. This scholarship has described how not only did the media influence the opinions of Americans toward Iran during the crisis, but this national emergency was just the foundation for a continued anti-Iran attitude across the States.

For 444 days the story of the U.S Embassy and Tehran consumed the lives of American citizens as images of manic Iranian mobs, blindfolded American captives, burnt American flags and terrified family members infused American newspapers. While other historians have conducted significant research on this emotionalized drama, little has been noted of the partisan walls of media that were broken down during this crisis of terrorism. With a look at popular national left-leaning newspapers of the time, including The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, and popular national right-wing newspapers such as The Christian Science Monitor and The Wall Street Journal, it is evident that despite differing political thought, the coverage of the crisis was the same. With a national reputation of strength and freedom at stake, the American media, both liberal and conservative, emotionalized the drama of the Iran Hostage Crisis, creating a tangible tragedy for average Americans and beginning an enduring negative relationship between the two nations.

One aspect printed in left and right press during the era of the crisis that humanized the national plight was the publicity of the chaos. In his NY Times article, David Rosenbaum emphasized the chaos of the crisis as he described the seemingly “irrational mob” of 400 Iranians storming the embassy and meeting no resistance from the embassy’s Iranian guards. Rosenbaum further described how night after night headlines such as “America Held Hostage” were featured on television and clips of bound and blindfolded innocent Americans were “paraded before a vengeful, chanting crowd.” Even on American turf, Rosenbaum taught, mayhem erupted after Iranians demonstrated in support of the Ayatollah in U.S cities; there were outbreaks of Iranians in the U.S being beaten, expelled from school, and fired from jobs. Turmoil like this eventually led President Carter to check the visas of over 50,000 Iranian students with intentions to deport those whose credentials were not proper. Furthermore, in an article written by Kenneth Bacon in the Wall Street Journal, chaos concerning the crisis is evident as Bacon describes how the United States was so desperate for help they allowed assistance from the Palestine Liberation Organization, an institution the U.S normally refuses to negotiate or deal formally with, as it is one of Israel’s enemies. Bacon describes how the United States applauded the efforts of the PLO concerning the hostage crisis and disregarded the organization’s image as a terrorist group. His article perfectly describes how the disorder Iran caused led to incredibly unconventional American decisions as the U.S was absolutely desperate for results.

National newspapers on both sides of the political aisle perfectly painted the frustration of this crisis, leading Americans to feel an automatic disdain for Iran as their beloved land of the free underwent months of humiliation. For citizens of the U.S at the time, it seemed as if nothing could get done—especially with the so-called savages terrorizing their fellow citizens in a city very foreign to what they knew. Newspapers often stuck to three main frustrations felt during the crisis: the power of Ayatollah on his own soil, the impotence of the United Nations, and the failed rescue mission. In his summarization article, Rosenbaum, a journalist from the leftist NY Times, stresses the gravity of Ayatollah’s infuriating decision to leave the fate of the hostages to the Iranian Parliament, a group that wasn’t scheduled to assemble until months after the seizure of the embassy. He also emphasizes the uselessness of the United Nations. He explains how in all their efforts, the United Nations were continually denied permission to see the hostages. Even when their Secretary General, Kurt Waldheim, attempted to make in person contact, he was denied meetings with the hostages and Ayatollah. Articles written in more conservative newspapers like The Wall Street Journal also consistently examine the power of the United Nations after questioning who is truly in charge in Iran. In fact, just 25 days into the crisis, journalists began to doubt if the release of the hostages could really be debated. Another constant theme throughout newspapers which caused perhaps the most obvious shame of the nation was President Carter’s failed rescue mission which ended in the death of eight soldiers. As these simple facts repeatedly filled headlines and front pages, America’s humiliation quickly transformed into hate.

Another strategy highlighted in the media was the focus on the inhumanity of Iran. Simply put in both liberal and conservative newspapers, Iran was immediately deemed as an incendiary nation and Iranians labeled terrorists. One article in The Wall Street Journal depicts this as it writes of Carter’s obvious stance against Iran’s blackmail quoting, “[the release of the 49 hostages] won’t wipe the slate clean” for the two nations. This underlying tone of the American ideology of refusing to negotiate with terrorists spread further into other newspapers such as The Christian Science Monitor. In the article, “No Ransom to Iran,” Iran’s demands for the return of the hostages were branded as “outrageous” and would require the American “government to bow” to their power. It is stated in the article that although the hearts of Americans felt for the families and the hostages, conforming to Iran’s demands would demean the American image throughout the world and invite others “to use similar terrorist tactics in their dealing with the United States.” Furthermore, another article published in The Christian Science Monitor depicts Iran as inhumane with various rhetoric tactics, beginning first with the title of the article, “Iran’s Humane Gesture.” Using some satire, this article ridicules the religious based society for having little mercy for their fellow men despite their spiritual beliefs and somewhat lightly writes of the hope people have that they will “extend their compassion to the other 52 hostages and their suffering families.” As noted before, this article also displays how the media managed to paint Americans as a lawful Christian nation and Iranians as cruel concluding the article with, “the prayers of many Americans will be that Iranian hearts do not remain hardened.”

In his dissertation, Ralph Dowling expands upon the idea that the American media fantasized the hostage crisis and explains the reasoning behind this. Dowling’s research covers a wide plane of historical context, specific characters within the crisis, important settings and essential actions that were taken; however, perhaps the most intriguing aspect of his work is his focus on “Bormann’s system of rhetorical analysis commonly known as fantasy-theme analysis.” Through his knowledge of Bormann’s system, Dowling explains how the media often inherently personalizes news when he says, “rhetorical visions serve as the reality of those who share them.” The American media spent fourteen months filling newspapers with powerful rhetoric not only because it was a means to defend their nation’s mighty reputation, but also because the rhetoric that was being shared was close to the hearts of those who produced it. As citizens of the United States, journalists were writing pieces that correlated with their own emotions of the crisis. Dowling writes how the media was motivated by fear and humiliation but more importantly, “a desire to reserve America… as a land of laws, a Christian nation and people.” The media’s desire to conserve America’s image as lawful and righteous and build a hope for their fellow citizens led to a year and two months of painting Iran and Islam as just the opposite.

As the media covered perhaps the most humiliating event in American history since Pearl Harbor emotion encompassed stories and headlines and captivated the hearts of Americans. As journalists wrote about the events transpiring over 5,000 miles away, emotional rhetoric pervaded their works. Headlines such as, “For Hostages’ Families, Worry Never Ends,” and “Year of Captivity: The Long, Frustrating Effort to End a National Humiliation” instilled a specific upheaval among their readers. Beyond the headlines were comprehensive stories of the families of the hostages and the effects taking place for them. In one article published in The New York Times, it was illustrated that relatives of hostages were undergoing psychiatric counseling, losing weight, developing ulcers and high blood pressure, and doubling their cigarette consumption. Additionally, in the same article, the author uses compelling language to outline this year of captivity, writing how it has been “a year of almost unbearable fear and depression, a year of roller coaster emotions, of lost birthdays and anniversaries, of wavering faith in men and institutions.” In the moving article, “Flight to Freedom,” published in the Wall Street Journal, the stories of the hostages and their families was illustrated even further as it was stated that the hostages would be reunited with their families in the U.S only after days of “adjusting to freedom” and undergoing medical treatment in Germany. This rhetoric displayed in both right and left newspapers guided the thoughts of Americans throughout and after the crisis; however, it was strategies such as using elaborate human interest stories from family members that truly pioneered the opinion of the public.

Not only did journalists broadly state how the victims’ families were coping with this tragedy, but they also published articles of pure narration of these devastated relatives. In the first lines of the article, “For Hostages’ Families, Worry Never Ends,” the author quotes the young sister of a twenty-two-year-old marine guard hostage pleading with her mother saying, “they’re going to kill him… they’re going to kill him aren’t they?” Also used in this article was a dismal quote from the wife of another hostage describing how she eventually chose not to answer her phone at most times, resigning “to the fact that the next call is not necessarily going to be the one about his freedom.” Even particularly personal stories were also told within articles including that of Penne Laingen and her son. Penne, wife of hostage Bruce Laingen, told of how she was summoned to the State Department with her thirteen-year-old son for a phone call with Bruce. On the drive there, her son nervously told her that he was unsure what to say to his father. She responded, “Talk about your school and your soccer team.” Upon arrival, the two were informed that the phone link had been cut and they returned to home. Later that afternoon, Penne found a crumpled piece of paper in the car that listed: “1) School 2) Soccer 3) Why can’t you get out?” With an article ultimately centered around the news of the Iranian Parliament refusing to release the captives, it is interesting to note how many personal stories and tormenting direct quotes were used. Paradoxically, the subheading, “The Only Thing Left is to Cry” causes some conjecture as to what the author’s goal was. Separately, in an article published in the Wall Street Journal, Karen House illustrates the concern of a hostage’s family as she mentions the worried brother of 28-year-old captive Mr. Queen and how in Mr. Queen’s letters to him he seems exhausted and ill. In the face of terror, it seems commentators choose to focus their reports more on emotionally manipulative concomitants rather than political.

The media even wrote entire articles centered around the political opinions of the family members concerning Iran and international problems. Although they were closest to the terror, most family members made public comments of the middle east and other countries in general with a sense of understanding and a constant love towards others, regardless of their nationality. They focused their messages more on principles than on the situation. Richard Harley’s “Six Hostage Families,” is just one article that depicts this concept by combining multiple quotes from hostage family members. In his article, Barbara Rosen, wife of hostage, Barry Rosen, discussed her husband’s love for Iran as a scholar of their affairs and mentions how even her children’s names were traditional Iranian names. Her message in her interview was inspiringly centered around helping other countries perform morally and develop better relations with them and she hoped that Americans would focus less on what is presented in the media and instead attempt to relate “to that part of the world—the people, their culture, history and background.” Bonnie Graves, the wife of a hostage argues for more sensitivity “with the evolving nations of the third world” and claimed that perhaps the current crisis was happening because pressures were too high in Iran to conform to American ideals. Even Margarite German, a soft-spoken mother of three and wife of a hostage, mentioned in the article hoping that the “UN [would] decide to put automatic pressure on a country that allows an embassy to be seized, so that it would feel the pressure of having no import or export markets,” meaning she hoped for change in the principle—not the situation—that nations would be expected to act morally or face the consequences. In a separate article, Dorothea Moorfield continues this conversation of principle as she eloquently says, “no people are all bad... [Iran] know[s] we could have snuffed them.... But they also know… that we have respect for human life, patience and… national maturity…. [Although] they have conducted themselves like children throwing a temper tantrum.” As the crisis slowly became more philosophized—especially by the family members—and soon was depicted in the media, the contrast of showing anger on one end and love on the other played a major role in helping calm the tension between the two nations and their people in later years.

Illustrating the actual experience of the hostages after they returned was another strategy of the media to appeal to their readers. Articles, including one published in The New York Times a couple weeks after the return in 1981, revealed the gruesome facts of life as a hostage. This article in particular focused on the first few days and weeks of the crisis, showing how at the beginning, nearly all of the hostages were held in the ambassador’s home and were bound to chairs or handcuffed and blindfolded for 24 hours a day. It told a story of some of the staff who continued shredding material in the top-secret vault room immediately after the seizure began and upon realizing material was still being destroyed, an Iranian leader held a knife to the throat of one of the hostages and demanded the other workers surrender. Finally, it discusses the firing squad which executed 26 of the Shah’s known followers, an event that inspired a wave of fear for those back home. Even upon their departure from Iran, the media described the gross mistreatment of the hostages in an article published by The Wall Street Journal, reporting that before boarding their plane, a crowd at the airport shouted, “down with America” and “down with Raegan.”

Daniel Strieff’s article about the hostage crisis and the role the families played further puts into perspective just how influential articles such as the ones above were during this time. Strieff explains that the exposure of hostage family members in the media humanized the hostage drama even further and played a large role in hardening American attitudes towards Iran. He presents how “framing the crisis primarily as a human drama rather than just a diplomatic imbroglio” allowed the families to personalize “the crisis for ordinary Americans.” One strategy of publicity Strieff chose to focus on was the Yellow Ribbon Campaign. This campaign was “designed, respectively, to garner public and media attention… to that end, the news media emerges as a singularly influential domestic actor in this episode.” Yellow ribbons representing the hostages were found across the nation on trees, car antennas, porches and schools. At one point, these ribbons even reached Tehran through the mail and were delivered to the hostages. When released from captivity in 1981, the first hostages off the plane fashioned yellow ribbons in their hair and the NFL “draped a giant yellow bow on the Louisiana Superdome, the site of the Super Bowl, to welcome them home.” This sunshine symbol and coverage thereof captured the hearts of Americans and worked as a constant reminder of the state of the hostages making this foreign crisis much closer to home.

As most articles surrounding the crisis are analyzed it becomes obvious the effect their rhetoric had on the citizens of the United States. Various articles continued to be published even following the victim’s warm welcome home. Although there was no longer news to report regarding the hostages, there were stories to finish. The American public followed this narrative like they follow popular TV shows. The hostages weren’t just fellow citizens, the hostages were characters in a captivating storyline—they were heroes—and the American public so obviously longed for a rounded conclusion. Articles centered around the present lives of the hostages and their families continued to come forth in the press. Journalists wrote how some former abductees were thriving, while others were struggling. They wrote how some were open to telling their story, while others absolutely refused. They even wrote of specific events that were occurring in the hostage’s lives, like how Marine Sargent William Gallegos was unexpectedly assaulted on the street, or how others had retired from their foreign service to spend more time at home. Notably, in this time of healing and closure little was being printed of the political opinions of the hostages and their families but rather the press focused on how the nation could move forward.

The coverage of the Iran Hostage Crisis exhibited a strange phenomenon—the unifying of the left and right wing media platforms in the United States. No other events seem to cause this unity of form and behavior like terrorist events do. This unity was obvious as leftist newspapers like The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times and rightist newspapers like The Christian Science Monitor and The Wall Street Journal reported in the same fashion. With a major focus on humanizing the drama by highlighting the chaos of the crisis and following the tragedy of the hostages and their families, both sides of the political spectrum influenced Americans and initiated an enduring national opinion of negativity towards Islam and Iran.

The media is powerful, and when accompanied by fear, almost unstoppable in its influence. The fear that follows terrorism and is implemented into the press is universal and can hardly be separated by class, race, religion, or even political thought. In an empirical study of exposure to terrorist and non-terrorist violence in the media, findings revealed higher levels of both “emotional and attitudinal measures consequent to the terrorism versus non-terrorism media exposure.” In his work, Jeffrey Goldstein further explains how exposure to terrorism effects the audience by teaching emotions induced by drama are weaker than everyday emotions, meaning the arousal that accompanies fear, disgust, and pity can be experienced as pleasurable, concluding people are drawn to violence or even terrorism when depicted in the press. Finally, another study displays this concept of being drawn to terrorism in the media despite high measures of emotion as it discusses that U.S newspapers often engage in episodic coverage of terrorism, treating its readers as viewers of entertainment. As the media on both sides of the political aisle treat the coverage of terrorism similarly and as Americans with different political values react the same, it is evident just how trivial partisanship is today when reporting terrorism, and how it was reported during the Iran Hostage Crisis. Today the division of the United States is obvious. With countless demonstrations and rallies against legislation, hateful debates among neighbors, classmates, colleagues and politicians, and a constant partisan divide both within Congress and on all technological devices, it is easy to assume that the U.S. is a confused nation. However, among this division, one ideology remains: the terror of terrorism. As terrorism continues to grow throughout the world, fear increases and in the most conceivably positive way—unites. As seen in the media coverage of the Iran Hostage Crisis, experienced in the wake of 9/11, and even noticed today, terror can unite. Unity is seen in families, communities, regions and even among America’s most paralyzing partisan group—the media.

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