Thirty-five years ago: “Nightline,” Ted Koppel, and the Iranian hostage crisis

(Screenshot from abcnews.go.com)

(Screenshot from abcnews.go.com)

In November 1979, a group of Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took over 60 American as hostages, triggering an event that would stretch on for over 440 days. Here’s how PBS describes what happened:

On November 4, 1979, an angry mob of young Islamic revolutionaries overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking more than 60 Americans hostage. “From the moment the hostages were seized until they were released minutes after Ronald Reagan took the oath of office as president 444 days later,” wrote historian Gaddis Smith, “the crisis absorbed more concentrated effort by American officials and had more extensive coverage on television and in the press than any other event since World War II.”

The Iranian hostage crisis dominated the final year of Jimmy Carter’s presidency and played a significant role in his loss to Ronald Reagan in November 1980. Beyond its impact on the election, the hostage crisis is notable for at least two big reasons:

First, it put the Middle East squarely into the heart of American diplomacy and military strategy. Remember, this was still the period of the Cold War, and the Soviet Union was regarded as America’s number one foe. The Iranian hostage crisis, while certainly different than foreign policy challenges in the region today, nevertheless foreshadowed the global conflict shifts to come for the U.S.

Second, in America it changed the way we watched the news, competing with the late night talk shows. ABC’s “Nightline” came on right after the evening local news programs, and the hostage crisis was its largest focus throughout 1980, with updates every night. “Nightline” anchor Ted Koppel, with a steady and understated style, would become one of the most familiar and trusted broadcast journalists of the era.

I was in college at Valparaiso University during the period of the hostage crisis, and “Nightline” was popular among those of us clued into politics and public affairs. I can only imagine how a similar situation might be covered by the cable news stations today, especially CNN or Fox News, but back in the day it was Ted Koppel and Co. who framed the international news for us.

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