Ellen Goodman on Walter Cronkite and the Iranian Hostage Crisis

By Ellen Goodman
Friday, July 17, 2009; 8:30 PM

Editor's Note: In this essay, first published in The Post on June 17, 1980, Ellen Goodman explored Walter Cronkite's signoff during the Iran hostage crisis and declared it "the most powerful subliminal editorial in America." We republish the piece today on the occasion of Cronkite's death.

It's a slow day. The nightly news show shuffles through its time slot, and on to the closing hymn: "That's the way it is, Thursday, June 12, 1980, the 222nd day of captivity for the hostages in Iran. This is Walter Cronkite, CBS News. Good night."

The line is delivered in the well-known, well-punctuated, well-modulated, properly authoritative manner -- rather like a benediction. But, after 222 days, this sentence has become the most powerful subliminal editorial in America.

At first, when the feelings of the country ran as red as the letters on ABC's nightly show "America Held Hostage," Cronkite's words on CBS sounded only like a dramatic epitaph to the news.

But we have been through seven months of imminent breakthroughs and ultimate disappointments, botched military missions and fruitless civilian missions. This foreign affair has become also a domestic affair: the situation in Iran has become a situation in the presidential campaign.

Now, the nightly Cronkite count, even more than the small boxscore numbers on the front pages of dozens of newspapers, has become a flag at half-mast, a daily probe of a wound, a political statement.

The closing hymn passes through our minds quickly like a flashcard -- do something! do something! -- reminding us of what we chorus night after night counting the 20th day, the 145th day, the 222nd day of captivity for the American hostages in Iran.

This is not the first time the Iranian story has become a media story. During all those days and nights when we watched the embassy mobs demonstrating again for the camera, the role of the media became a source of concern reported by its reporters.

The media event, the media show, was hardly an Iranian invention. For a long time, journalists had gnawed at the question of whether they were reporting an event or contributing to it. If you cover the event created especially for you, are you being manipulated? If you don't, are you neglecting it?

But in Iran it was so exaggerated that many reporters worried out loud that their own presence produced scenes of "militant students." They didn't know whether they were "manipulating the news" or being manipulated by the newsmakers.

At home, too, the media -- print and television -- were called on to judge the effect of the coverage, as well as the situation, on the Rose Garden campaign.

Most reporters, on and off the air, would rather believe they are covering a story than creating it. So in many ways it has been an uncomfortable time.

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