Film Studies: True terror? A great light in the night sky and then nothing on TV...

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The Independent Culture

Jennings was a reporter, too. He had done Vietnam, and he was prominent for bringing Kosovo into American homes. On the morning of September 11, 2001, he set out on approximately 60 hours, unbroken, on the air. And in those hours, he spoke well, clearly, and with great feeling. He was trained to write his own newscasts and he took pride in having turned modest education into prime-time eloquence.

For a while now, there has been a big three in television news in the US: Jennings at ABC; Dan Rather at CBS; Tom Brokaw at NBC. Now, suddenly they are all gone. Rather was forced out by a kind of scandal. He allowed his Democratic sympathies to influence a serious mistake in emphasis. Tom Brokaw retired - and Brokaw was, quite simply, everything that Robert Redford has failed to be in the American imagination. And now Jennings succumbs to cancer. There will be successors, but the three network news shows are now lucky to have 25 million viewers on any night. Once upon a time, when the three networks ran television, and the anchors were Walter Cronkite at CBS, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley at NBC, Harry Reaskner and Frank Reynolds at ABC, each network might have had 25 million.

If this seem a little remote from Film Studies, let me remind you that one area of concern for this column has always been whatever we do with screens and the personalities that depend on them. In Britain as much as the US, in the early days of radio, movie or television, there was a great deal of theorising on the nature of a mass medium. It wasn't just that these media entertained or informed enormous human crowds. It was that heavily populated societies (the nations of the 20th century), feared chaos or disorder.

Mass media served this purpose: they said, be calm, we are all here together, we are being spoken to - the plane has a pilot. Anyone has felt that community and compassion at our worst (and best) moments: not just 9/11, but the death of John Kennedy or Princess Diana. We know the terror there might be if there was ever a great light in the night sky and then nothing on television.

This idea behind the necessity of mass media had a great deal to do with the attitudes implicit in television: the relative paternalism of British broadcasting is just one example of television and radio in conveying confidence. But technology has already ripped away that façade. The big three have not really been the big three for a while - they were a forlorn gesture towards nostalgia. They, and CNN, were the channels to go to in a crisis. But more generally, viewers knew that there was a mess of news on television, some of it very loaded with spin, some of it flagrantly unreliable or petty in its focus; and some of it satirical. There are plenty of kids in America who get their news from Jon Stewart because they no longer bother to separate the facts from the mockery.

In some ways, this is valuable and democratic. But can it hold? Are we brave and wise enough to manage without a "reliable" source of news? Are we equipped to survey all the news sources and make up our own minds? Or is the variety of news services just a sign that we have elected to ignore the news or treat it as just one more show?