Mika Brzezinski should get a raise. Last week, the MSNBC news host refused to report the day's lead story. "We're not covering this," she announced. "I'm done with the Paris Hilton story." Brzezinski got out her lighter, and unsuccessfully flicked away at her script. "Will you burn this for me please?" she said to a co- anchor later in the broadcast, after ripping it up and crumpling it into a ball. "My producer's not listening to me," she said in frustration, as her co-anchors picked up the ball, literally, to yammer on about the latest pratfall from the Hilton heiress.

This revealing moment demonstrates how U.S. newscasters are tiring of Paris updates, yet producers keep trying to push the party girl ahead of the war in Iraq and corruption in Washington.

Whether it's Paris, Don Imus, or the late Anna Nicole Smith, there always seems to be a troubled celeb to rotate on the 24-hour news cycle, pushing bigger stories to the margins. But to her credit, the MSNBC reporter momentarily pulled back the curtain, revealing the farcical mechanics behind the Great Oz of American infotainment.

Watching this telling moment, I couldn't but help think of the late Edward Louis Bernays.

Most people have never heard of Edward Bernays, yet he was once named one of the most influential figures of the 20th century by Life magazine. Born in Vienna in 1891, the nephew of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud is considered the chief architect of mass persuasion, or as he called it, "engineering consent." In the BBC documentary Century of the Self, an elderly Bernays explained how he rebranded his field of endeavour, "propaganda," as "public relations." This was just one of his many memorable acts of spin.

Bernays held that human beings are fundamentally irrational and untrustworthy, and that it's the duty of social programmers to manipulate the herd for their own good. He helped popularize Freud's ideas in the United States, and sold leaders in business and politics on the value of exploiting the unconscious mind to sell everything from automobiles to foreign campaigns.

In his 1928 book Propaganda, he wrote: "If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without them knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits."

Freud's nephew didn't just theorize about persuasion, he put it into practice. After opening an office in New York in 1919, he became a master at using consumers' virtuous beliefs to serve other ends. One way he managed this was through public relations stunts, as when he successfully showed tobacco companies how to maximize their profit by reaching a new target audience, women. He staged a public event where "suffragettes" marched in the streets of New York with their new symbol of self-expression, cigarettes, or as Bernays called them, "torches of freedom." On his signal, models struck up their Lucky Strikes in front of waiting photographers.

Among Bernay's many accounts were Cartier, Best Foods, Proctor & Gamble, CBS, General Electric and Dodge Motors. He was the first to master the art of product placement, by cross-marketing his clients' services and products.

The man didn't just move product, he moved armies. In 1954, the democratically elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz, nationalized areas occupied by Bernays' client, The United Fruit Company. The public relations conjurer responded by using the U.S. media to paint Guatemala as a communist regime and a domestic threat. His work helped set the stage for a CIA-organized military coup and a decades-long U.S. client/torture state.

Bernays' vision for the herd has come a long way. His successors have mastered the dark arts of persuasion, using semantic conjuring, psychographics, focus groups and inflated rumours. One infamous example is the story of Iraqis killing babies in Kuwaiti hospital incubators, a fairy tale hatched by the Washington PR firm Hill and Knowlton in 1990, to convince Congress to back the first Gulf War. There are countless other examples of tall tales from the public relations-media-military complex, from the rescue of U.S. private Jessica Lynch in Iraq to Saddam's WMDs and beyond.

This brings us back to the celebs du jour who front the 24-hour news shows. Brzezinski's eruption against Paris-piffle seemed a rare thing: a news reporter abandoning her script for the real story about robber barons with briefcases, even while being mocked by her co-anchors for acting like "a journalist." It was a moment of human truth, a moment that Edward Bernays would have found difficult to stage.

Unless, of course, Mika's moment was also theatre.

Geoff Olson