Today in Media History: Iran releases American hostages in 1981

January 20, 2015
Category: Uncategorized

On January 20, 1981, the media covered two important news stories at the same time. The 52 American hostages in Iran were released and Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president.

The hostage story began in November 1979 when Iranians seized the American Embassy in Tehran and took more than sixty American hostages. A few of the captives were released, but the remaining 52 hostages were held for 444 days.

It came to an end when a plane with the hostages took off just moments after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president. Here is an excerpt from a UPI story:

“Ronald Reagan took the oath of office Tuesday, pledged an ‘era of national renewal’ and pronounced his first day as the nation’s 40th president ‘perfect’ because the 52 American hostages were released.

Less than half an hour after Reagan was sworn in, Jimmy Carter’s around-the-clock efforts that climaxed his term in office finally resulted in release of the hostages by Iran on their 444th day in captivity.

Making the announcement that was denied Carter because of last-minute delays, Reagan told the guests at a congressional inaugural luncheon that, ‘The planes bearing our prisoners left Iranian air space.’

Later, starting a round of gala celebrations with his wife, Nancy, at an inaugural ball at a Washington hotel, Reagan announced to cheers and applause that the Americans were in Algiers.”

A 2014 report from CBS News:

“Carter’s all-night effort to bring the 52 hostages home before the end of his term, documented by an ABC television crew in the Oval Office, fell short; the Iranians released them minutes after Reagan was inaugurated.

On January 21, 1981, now-former President Carter went to Germany to meet the freed hostages on behalf of the new president. It was a difficult moment, fraught with emotion. Hamilton Jordan recalled that Carter ‘looked as old and tired as I had ever seen him.’ “

— “The Iranian Hostage Crisis
PBS American Experience

ABC’s “World News Tonight” on January 20, 1981:

(Here is a link to an interview with Ted Koppel, about how the ABC News program, “America Held Hostage,” became “Nightline”)

In this archival report, NBC News remembers how the Iranian hostage crisis began in 1979.

And in 2012 Ben Affleck’s film “Argo” also looked back at the story. President Carter, in his role as film reviewer, answers some questions about the movie: