Based on a True Story: Broadcast Legends Remember the Iran Hostage Crisis
Ted Koppel, Barbara Walters and other top journalists give their insights on one of America's darkest hours, as well as the secrets no one else knew.
Ted Koppel, in his archive-preserved youth, makes a cameo appearance in Argo, the new Iran Hostage Crisis-based drama from director Ben Affleck. But during the actual run of events in 1979-80, the trauma that gripped the nation and introduced America to political Islam, Koppel was the star.
And it was something he could have never predicted.
When Iranian revolutionaries stormed the gates of the United States Embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage, the Syracuse University graduate was serving as Diplomatic Correspondent for ABC News. Koppel, speaking to The Hollywood Reporter at an event for Argo in Manhattan on Tuesday, recalled getting a call from the network's assignment desk on the Sunday of the hostile takeover, and not quite wanting to come in to work right away.
"I reminded them at that time, that about six months previously, there had been a similar incident at the embassy, and the ambassador had come out, talked to the crowd, everybody went home and it was over in a number of hours," he remembered. "So I said, ‘do you really want me to come in? Because this thing will be over by the time I get in.' I was wrong."
Indeed, the crisis would launch the network's "America Held Hostage" special program, which eventually turned into Nightline in 1980, which he anchored for 25 years. Argo focuses in on the unlikely efforts to save six American workers who had escaped the embassy during the raid, and were hiding out at the home of the Canadian Ambassador. As the film mentions, several journalists had become aware of the hidden faction; Koppel was one of those reporters.
Koppel explained: "I got a call from the Secretary of State, saying, 'I understand that you’re going to put this story on the air tonight. And I can’t tell you not to do it, but I would ask you not to, because it seems to us inevitable that if you put it on the air, that the Canadian Embassy would probably be taken, and that the Americans that escaped from the US Embassy would probably be killed.'"
Ultimately, he decided not to go with the report. "The only time in more than 50 years that I’ve ever killed a story," he said.
Barbara Walters was also with ABC News at the time, and played her own historic role in covering the crisis, even if she wasn't clued in to the breakaway hostage situation that Koppel would end up spiking.
"I remember I was the last one to interview the Shah of Iran," she told THR. "I went up to see him and took a polaroid picture. He was hated in his country, and he then went to Panama. He was very ill, and he died. I remember the Iran Hostage Crisis, I remember how he was hated when he came here. And I still see the Shah’s widow and her son. They live in Virginia."
Several journalists who were not working at the time -- or at least, in the political/diplomatic field -- also reflected on their experiences during the crisis.
"I grew up in Iran. The revolution changed my life," Christiane Amanpour, CNN's Chief International Correspondent, said. "I happened to have been at university in the United States during the hostage crisis. It was not a pleasant time. It wasn’t nice being Iranian on campus in the US, but I never hid that I was Iranian, and I actually tried to show Americans who were justifiably scared that actually there’s another side to Iranian people, as well."
As for what she would do if faced today with a situation similar to what Koppel faced, she said, "It depends. I mean, listen, I don’t know the whole story of this, so I’m really looking forward to seeing it. Clearly, if it was about saving people’s lives, and being worried about their security, you’d have to have a whole other conversation with yourself."
Bryant Gumbel, who joked that as a sportscaster at the time he was "more concerned with the Steelers and Cowboys," largely agreed.
"I guess it would depend on whether somebody’s life was in danger, and whether or not it really compromised somebody’s well-being," he told THR. "Look, journalists kept secrets for years in times of war, and I think we can all feel proud that they did, but I don’t think anybody would jeopardize somebody’s life just to get a scoop."
ABC News legal analyst, former MSNBC honcho and Mediaite founder Dan Abrams echoed his colleagues, as well.
"I think you deal with it very carefully. I think that organizations for a long time have withheld information that they think will jeopardize American citizens," he explained. "And I think that would probably be a case where the media would have to move very carefully... It’s one of these totality of the circumstances situations, but I think that if they’re in the process of an escape, I think it’s the media’s obligation to withhold that information. One of those very, very rare situations."