This is the second of two episodes focusing on the Iranian hostage crisis (November 4th, 1979-January 20th, 1981), and features excerpts of interviews with George Washington University Professor William Adams, former GWU News Study Center Director Fay Schreibman McGrew, and former CBS News foreign correspondent Tom Fenton.
[00:00] [background music] Walter Cronkite: And that’s the way it is, Tuesday, January 20th, 1981, a day that began as the 444th day of captivity and ended as the first day of freedom for the American Hostages in Iran. This is Walter Cronkite, CBS News, reporting from Washington. Good night.
Russ Mason: [00:12] This is the second of two “News Knowledge” episodes on the Iranian hostage crisis, which was an historical event that grew out of the Islamic revolution that disposed the Shah of Iran and placed the Ayatollah Khomeini in power in 1979. At the conclusion of our previous episode, the former hostages, after 444 days in captivity, had finally arrived in Algiers, thanks to the successful role that Algerian diplomats played as intermediaries during protracted negotiations between the US and Iran. Iran had timed the release of the American hostages to coincide with inauguration day in the United States so that they wouldn’t leave Iran until after Ronald Reagan had been sworn in and Jimmy Carter was no longer president. Carter and several members of his administration traveled to meet with the freed hostages, who had been flown from Algiers to Wiesbaden, Germany, where their physical and mental health was evaluated. Tom Fenton, who was one of the foreign correspondents who covered the hostages’ captivity and release for CBS News, was there in Wiesbaden and filed this report for CBS when Carter arrived.
Tom Fenton: [01:38] Cheated out of making the trip as president, Mr. Carter arrived with key members of his former administration, traveling almost as if he were still in power. He was given a warm reception by military families and patients at the hospital. Observers have described this as a bittersweet trip. The sweetness is in the warmth of the meeting with the former hostages that he prayed for and must have dreamed of for 14 and a half months. No cameras or microphones were permitted inside the hospital, but as he spoke with the former hostages on their third floor ward, Mr. Carter’s face was wreathed with a smile. Not the nervous smile he sometimes shows, but one that betrayed deep emotion. Some of the hostages had complained bitterly in letters written during their captivity about what they saw as inactivity by the White House. They had felt abandoned. One of the reasons Mr. Carter made this extraordinary trip may have been to explain firsthand to the former hostages all that he had done to help free them.
Russ: [02:39] The US State Department had developed a plan to help the former hostages make the transition back to their previous lives and careers – a plan which included showing the hostages several hours of news segments obtained from the Vanderbilt Television News Archive. Here’s a report by a local Nashville TV station which aired just after the hostages were released.
Samuetta Primus: [03:01] Under strict orders from the State Department not to discuss the project with outsiders, the nine member staff at the Vanderbilt News Archive worked for three months producing the videotapes. Since 1968 the Archive has recorded and indexed every network nightly news broadcast. The library has over 7,000 hours of recorded news. According to its director, filling the State Department’s order posed few problems.
Archive Director Jim Pilkington: [03:27] It was understood that they would make the selections of the items at George Washington University and would send us the list of the items that they wanted included on the compilation. We knew that we were making…for what purpose they were being made…but no one knew when the hostages were going to be released. So we had no idea of how long of a time we were going to be doing the compilation, and we were mighty glad it wasn’t any longer than it was.
Samuetta: [03:54] The State Department picked news events from that 14 month period to not only showed the former hostages what went on historically, but also socially, politically, and culturally. The finished product includes six one hour videotapes with the chosen news stories from the day the hostages were captured through December 19th. When the former hostages begin their reorientation program, the tapes will bring them up to date in six hours about what has happened over the last 14 months. The medical teams hope that this will make their readjustment a lot easier. Samuetta Primus, Channel Four News.
Russ: [04:29] This was not only a memorable moment for Vanderbilt University, but also for George Washington University, because it was the TV News Study Center at GWU that was first contacted by the State Department regarding their idea for helping the former hostages learn about what had gone on in the world during the 14 months that they’d been held. Fay Schreibman McGrew, who was the TV News Study Center’s director at that time, enlisted the help of GWU professor William Adams, and together they set about to fulfill the State Department’s request. Here’s an edited version of their appearance on a local DC area midday television program in January of 1981, explaining how they worked together on this project.
Reporter: [05:16] That was an incredible task. When were you approached?
Fay Schreibman McGrew: [05:20] In March of 1980, Dr. Haynes from the State Department gave us a call and asked if we could assist him in a project to update the hostages. He knew of the Gelman Library’s Television News Studies Center and our special resources that we had in the library. He was also familiar with the work that Dr. Adams and I had done in media research and television. He said, “Is it possible for you to condense news stories in an audiovisual way to show them?” We said, yes, it is possible. You came to the right place, and we would be delighted to help him.
Reporter: [05:56] Then, Dr. Adams, you sat down and began the task. Where did you start?
Dr. William Adams: [06:02] We started on November 4th, 1979 when the hostages were seized. We tried to come up with concise, factual, vivid news stories that would cover the major news events of the past few months. It became a pretty massive project because, obviously, they stayed over there a lot longer than anyone anticipated. We found ourselves not only taking close notes as we watched television, but relying on some special abstracts and indexes that are done of television news at Vanderbilt University. We constantly tried to update the tapes so that there would always be a recent tape ready to go for the State Department.
Reporter: [06:48] Where did you get your material from? Were you monitoring all three networks?
Fay: [06:54] We monitored all three networks. We received the actual tapes from the Vanderbilt Television News Archive. They loan news materials to all researchers in need of it.
Dr. Adams: [07:03] This is sort of an interesting point. Most people think television news disappears after it’s broadcast and that it’s not accessible, but Vanderbilt University has been recording off the air since 1968 television news. Researchers can go back and study what’s been broadcast. At George Washington, we have some very special facilities that work in collaboration with Vanderbilt.
Reporter: [07:27] Who was narrating all of this?
Fay: [07:28] It’s excerpts of the network newscasts.
Dr. Adams: [07:33] It’s run chronologically. We didn’t edit inside stories. We took entire network news stories and ran them with a tight edit, chronologically from November 4th until December 1980.
Reporter: [07:46] And you just decided it didn’t matter which network did the story. It was up to your opinion.
Dr. Adams: [07:51] Right. We were looking for concise stories that captured the essence of the newscast.
Reporter: [07:59] On the major topics that you did cover, did you at all limit? What were the major topics?
Dr. Adams: [08:06] We tried to reflect the major network news stories of the last 14 months. The tapes reflect the agenda that the networks had. The big two stories of the year were the Iran crisis itself and the 1980 presidential campaign. Those are the stories that dominate our tapes as well. In addition to that, we tried to cover the other major news stories.
Reporter : [08:32] When was this shown to the returnees?
Dr. Adams: [08:34] The next day after they arrived in Wiesbaden. We understand that they watched it very enthusiastically. All the people we’ve talked to at the State Department said the tapes were a terrific success. In fact, they asked if they could take the tapes on with them to West Point.
Reporter: [08:52] You had, what, four and a half, five and a half hours for a total on this tape?
Dr. Adams: [08:57] Right. The videotape anthology totals about five and a half hours.
Reporter: [09:00] What would you have liked to have included that you couldn’t?
Dr. Adams: [09:05] When the AP, Associated Press, came out with their survey of the top 20 stories of 1980, we had included every one of the top 20 stories except one. That was AP said the 20th biggest story of the year was the fervor over who shot JR.
Fay: [09:24] We didn’t think there’d be satellite feed of “Dallas” to the hostages in Tehran, so we left that one out.
Dr. Adams: [09:32] We decided they really wouldn’t care who shot JR.
Reporter: [09:33] What else?
Dr. Adams: [09:34] There were other stories that, because of limits of time, we couldn’t include, but we feel like most of them were not quite given as much coverage during that period. Things like the coup in Liberia.
Fay: [09:48] The MGM fire, the hotel, and toxic shock syndrome.
Dr. Adams: [09:55] Fay also wanted to include Mae West’s death, but those didn’t get on the tapes.
Reporter 2: [10:03] You decided mutually. It was up to the two of you.
Fay: [10:06] Yes.
Dr. Adams: [10:06] Yes.
Russ: [10:07] Recently, former Vanderbilt TV News Archive Director John Lynch and I were able to speak with both Professor Adams and Fay Schreibman McGrew. As Fay mentioned during that interview we just listened to, she was first contacted by a psychiatrist by the name of Pat Haynes, who was the State Department’s Assistant Medical Director for Mental Health Services at that time. Fay recalled for us what his goals were regarding the hostages’ readjustment following their release.
Fay: [10:37] So when Dr. Haynes contacted us, he shared with me what the treatment program was. Being diplomats, they need to know what was going in the world every day, that’s just their lifestyle. For them not to have news, not to know what has gone on in the world, was a very big factor. The main thing was, how could we update them? This is what he said, and this was in the back of my mind the whole time:
One, in their treatment, they needed to be together, and to talk about the experience themselves, because remember, they were separated, they were isolated, where they were put in smaller groups. As a group, they needed to talk through the experience.
Secondly, they needed the news to update them. As I mentioned before, as diplomats, they needed to know what has gone on in the world.
Thirdly, they needed to be joined with their families.
And fourth, was for them to return to the US.
So we were thinking of that, OK, they wanted it to be short. Now, this was three months in, it was three months in to them being captured. We said, “When are they coming home, so then we have some idea?” He said, “Oh, in about three months.” As we know, that didn’t happen. It was just like recreating the same project over and over again, every three months, because different news items came, and of course, as we all know, that they were the number one news item that was going on. At the end of it, towards the end, because we kept calling him, “When are they coming home, because that’s going to impact what we’re doing,” and at the end, Dr. Haynes just said, “Just watch TV news, that’s it,” [laughs] “Just watch the news, and then you’ll find out from that.”
Russ: [12:34] Not surprisingly, the effectiveness of Dr. Haynes’ plan for the former hostages, while generally positive, varied from individual to individual, as revealed both by follow up medical and psychological studies, as well as by the anecdotal information that Fay and Professor Adams gleaned from their own conversations with a couple of the hostages.
Russ: [12:54] Did you get to speak to any of the hostages after they were released, and did you have a conversation with them about what you had done for them?
Dr. Adams: [13:03] Actually, I did. Later, I was teaching at Fort McNair, at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, and the Commandant, the new Director there was Bruce Laingen, who had been the highest ranking diplomatic officer at the Embassy. He had been the chargé d’affaires there and was the leader of the people who were taken hostage. He said that, yes, that he and most people he knew had taken advantage of those videotapes and had definitely watched them. That they really did prepare them for their reentry, that they had no idea that their situation had been front and center in the American media for all those many months. It really did help them reenter the world without having this huge void of all kinds of dramatic things. They would not have known about the Soviet activities in Afghanistan. So that was really exciting to hear. I had heard it second hand, I had heard it third hand, that the tapes had been used, and had served the purpose that we hoped it would serve. It was a real thrill to actually talk to one of the, first hand, to hear from one the hostages, and particularly this guy, because he was the top ranking official, that it had served the purpose that we hoped it would serve.
Russ: [14:52] Fay Schreibman McGrew, on the other hand, had a distinctly different conversation with former hostage Barry Rosen.
Fay: [14:59] Where I did learn what happened from them, is when I met Barry Rosen, who’s one of the hostages, and talk about the experience. I asked him about the tapes, and he said that they saw very little of them. They watched them to the point where they had to make statements to the press…do you remember that, a few of them were forced to make statements? Then they stopped the tape, and that’s when they really went into a conversation with each other, with how they all felt about it, but they never went back to them, to his knowledge.
[15:37] Then I asked him, and it was cruel in a way, but it proved what Dr. Haynes was going at with, I said, “What did President Carter talk to you about when he greeted you?” And he was incoherent. It pressed a button on him. Their mental state was not in a way to be greeted by the President of the United States, because they weren’t given what they needed to do to process for themselves, as individuals. That was the wrong thing, to be greeted by the President of the United States. They needed to be all with each other, and just to help heal each other. Instead, they were thrown in to this situation. It should be a follow up, actually, where are they today, and what are they doing.
Russ: [16:33] The agreement negotiated by Algerian diplomats that led to the release of the hostages in January 1981, included a stipulation that Iran had immunity from lawsuits in American courts, which for decades, effectively prevented any financial compensation for the former hostages. Then, in 2015, after the Paris based bank BNP Paribas violated sanctions against Iran, Sudan, and Cuba, and was forced to pay a $9 billion penalty, Congress earmarked some of this money for payments of up to $4.4 million to each of the former hostages or their estates, as well as lesser amounts to the former hostages’ immediate relatives. Here’s ABC’s December 24th, 2015 report on this long awaited development.
Tom Llamas: [17:23] They became international pawns, their ordeal dragging on for more than a year. Rodney Sickmann was one of them, a 22 year old Marine serving as a security guard at the Embassy.
Rodney Sickmann: [17:34] Being held hostage was 444 days of a bad nightmare, where each day, we woke up, we thought we were dead.
Tom Llamas: [17:41] Finally, on the day Ronald Reagan was sworn in…
Frank Reynolds: [17:44] They’ve won the freedom for 52 Americans.
Tom Llamas: [17:47] In all the years since, the former hostages fought for compensation, and now it’s finally come, buried in a Budget bill, President Obama signed last Friday. They will each receive up to $4.4 million. That’s $10,000 for every one of the 444 days they spent in captivity. Sickmann calls it justice. And Sickmann tells us when he heard the news he actually pulled over to the side of the road and cried.
Russ: [18:13] Meanwhile, in Iran, the Islamic Revolution has endured, though most of its original leaders are gone. A previous News Knowledge episode featured a telephone interview with CBS News foreign correspondent Tom Fenton, who recalled some of his experiences as a reporter in Paris and Tehran during the hostage crisis, including his interaction during the early days of the Islamic Revolution with two close associates of Ayatollah Khomeini, Sadegh Ghotbzadeh and Dr. Ibrahim Yazdi, both of whom had studied in the United States. Khomeini initially relied on them for political advice as he assumed power in Iran, only to distance himself from them later, in favor of a more theocratic form of government. Here is a portion of the report that Fenton filed for CBS in 1982 about the ultimate fates of Ghotbzadeh, Yazdi, and other Iranian government figures.
Tom Fenton: [19:12] Ghotbzadeh was one of the most flamboyant of the bizarre cast of characters that launched the Iranian Revolution. Despite a taste for expensive French cut suits, good wine, and mistresses, he was one of the stern old Ayatollah’s closest aides. He sat next to Khomeini on the historic flight back to Tehran in February 1979. His opposition to the seizure of the American Embassy contributed to his downfall, but his most serious fault was that he was moderate and pro Western. Most of the original leaders of the Revolution have now been eliminated either by purge or violence. Former President Banisadr fled to the West. Party leader Ayatollah Beheshti was assassinated. Defense Minister Shamran shot dead under mysterious circumstances. Former Prime Minister Bazargan disgraced. Former Foreign Minister Yazdi disgraced. Ayatollah Shariat Maderi under house arrest. And today, Sadegh Ghotbzadeh executed. Tom Fenton, CBS News, London.
Russ: [20:14] It’s worth mentioning that Dr. Yazdi, who had a degree in pharmacology, remained active in Iranian politics throughout his life, promoting constitutional democracy within the framework of Iran’s Islamic Republic, and in 2011 was sentenced to eight years in prison for his actions. After less than a year, however, he was released for health reasons, and passed away just last year. During my phone conversation with Tom Fenton, he talked a bit about the importance with his relationship with Sadegh Ghotbzadeh while he was reporting from Tehran for CBS.
Tom Fenton: [20:49] Ghotbzadeh was generally helpful towards the foreign media. I remember once I was doing my stand-upper on the streets in Tehran, and unknown to me, I was very close to the place where the Ayatollah was staying at the time. We were arrested by the police and held for a number of hours. And I managed to get a message to Ghotbzadeh, who at the time was running the television and radio. He got us released. [laughs] He was helpful. That’s it. Too helpful in the long run.
Russ: [21:32] It’s something to imagine that you had tea with him in your apartment in Paris in 1978, and then by 19…what as it? ‘82? He was executed.
Tom Fenton: [21:49] Many revolutions destroy their own children, that’s not unusual.
Russ: [21:54] Then, towards the end of our conversation, Fenton reminisced about the day to day experiences of being a foreign correspondent in Tehran during the hostage crisis.
Tom Fenton: [22:07] It wasn’t terribly amusing to be there week after week covering all this, but there were little delights. For example, at the Intercontinental – what was then the Tehran Intercontinental Hotel – all alcohol disappeared from the menu immediately. The wine list consisted of Coca Cola, Pepsi Cola, and something else.
Russ: [22:36] [laughs]
Tom Fenton: [22:36] I noticed that when the waiters would serve us a Coke, they would serve with one hand behind the back and the other hand on the bottle, and they would pour a bit in the glass, so you could taste it.
Russ: [22:48] Oh yes. [laughter]
Tom Fenton: [22:48] When it came to real alcohol we had no problem at all because the neighborhood revolutionary committees, who were running things in those days, had seized a huge amount of alcohol from the American Embassy commissary and were selling it. And not only that, they didn’t know the difference between Black Label and rot gut, so we got a good price. To this day I imagine if they ever tear down the Intercontinental and go into the air conditioning system, they’ll be amazed at the number of empty bottles that were stashed up there after our party.
Russ: [23:29] [laughs] And so were you there in that hotel with correspondents from the other networks?
Tom Fenton: [23:36] We flocked together. In fact, I remember among us we used to speculate on what to do if the United States were to try to rescue the hostages from the American Embassy. Most of us felt the best thing to do was to take refuge in the Canadian Embassy. I suppose that’s what we would have done if things had gotten too hairy.
Russ: [24:03] Were you there when Carter did attempt that one rescue that failed?
Tom Fenton: [24:09] I’m trying to remember. I think that was one of my out times. It’s been so long.
Russ: [24:15] Yeah, sure.
Tom Fenton: [24:16] When you have half a century of roaming around the world. I’ll have to refresh my memory, but I’m almost certain I wasn’t there.
Russ: [24:26] By consulting our TV News archive database, I was able to determine that in fact, at the time of the failed rescue mission, Tom Fenton was in Europe covering other stories for CBS. A few months after the hostages release in 1981, Bill Moyers devoted an entire broadcast of his weekly PBS program to an analysis of the hostage crisis, and its impact on US-Iranian relations. As we conclude this News Knowledge episode, here is an excerpt from that broadcast of an interviewe that Moyers conducted with professor Adams.
Bill Moyers: [24:59] What effect do you think that coverage had on American public opinion? Did it change the way we see the world?
Dr. Adams: [25:05] I think it was the most critical ingredient, and one of the biggest changes in American public opinion that we’ve witnessed in the last couple of decades. Something extraordinary happened in American public opinion in the last couple of years. A few years ago, only about a 10th of the American people said they wanted to increase defense spending. In the last year, that proportion has increased to about three fourths of the American people saying they want to increase defense spending. What comes through the Iranian coverage over and over again, is the idea that the world is a dangerous place, and that maybe it is better to deal with it through a position of strength than through sentimentality and good intentions.
Bill: [25:53] Yet those events were not happy ones, they did reflect a reality that the world is dangerous, and that the world is a dangerous place.
Dr. Adams: [26:01] Absolutely. I’m not suggesting that the networks created those events. What I am suggesting is that it was critical that the networks gave those events high visibility, and treated them as menacing, not just unfortunate.
Bill: [26:14] What do you think was the effect of Cronkite saying every night at the closing of his broadcast, “This is the 250th day. This is the 300th day. This is the 340th day. This is the 400th day,” constantly reminding people of the hostages being held, even when the president might have been looking the other way?
Dr. Adams: [26:33] Most studies indicate that the presidency and the networks have a very symbiotic interactive kind of relationship. The networks follow the activities of the president very closely. The fact that the president put it the top of his agenda, that the National Security Council was doing little else for many days but meeting on the hostage crisis, helped keep it at the top of the network agenda for a long time. The same time, the president responds to the media, and it’s very difficult for the president to ignore a story that Cronkite, Chancellor, and Reasoner all said was the most important event in the world that day.
Bill: [27:18] The ability of television and politics to influence one another grows in an election year when politicians play not to the head, but to the heart, whose strings no medium plucks better than this one. The result is more often impassioned sentiment than informed insight. Politics and diplomacy require time, bargaining, ambiguity, and privacy. Television thrives on emotion, immediacy, and articulation. Of the hostages, the story we kept seeing was starkly emotional. All of us felt involved in the fate of human beings we came to know by their first names, with families and kin folk like those next door. Their fate became the one story television could tell with all the dramatic qualities inherent to its nature. Other national policy considerations than their safety were abbreviated, if not ignored. So that our frustrations were fed, even as our understanding was not.
Dr. Adams: [28:08] The melodrama required the climax and the ending. ANd since we had, fortunately, a happy ending, it was necessary that it be brought to a conclusion with the magnitude that it had been covered to begin with. We had the succession of homecomings in Wiesbaden, in West Point, and Washington, and New York, in hometowns, and in neighborhoods. Each covered in depth as a media event.
Bill: [28:34] Americans love a happy ending.
Dr. Adams: [28:37] Absolutely.
Bill: [28:37] This was the happiest of endings for that drama.
Dr. Adams: [28:39] That’s right. Television had to give us in detail the last chapter in that drama.
Russ: [28:54] That concludes the second of our two News Knowledge episodes on the Iranian hostage crisis and its aftermath. Our sincere thanks to William Adams, Fay Schreibman McGrew, and Tom Fenton, for each sharing their recollections and insights regarding this historical event from their unique perspectives. I’m Russ Mason, and for all of us here at the Vanderbilt Television News Archive, we thank you for listening.
Transcription by CastingWords