Reading the Daily Me at the End of the Century of Self

by John on September 24, 2010

The Yellow Kid, a popular 1890’s cartoon character in the Hogan’s Alley comic strip, lampooning the Spanish-American War and how irresponsible journalism fanned the flames by appealing to popular prejudice.                   (click on image for larger version)

Who will edit our future?

In the late ‘70’s, Nicholas Negroponte of MIT’s Media Lab, worked on the beginnings of the technology which is leading to a future where we might all receive news only from the sources we selected. In his 1995 book, “Being Digital,” he described this news source as the ‘Daily Me’. Negroponte brilliantly anticipated all the developments of personalized feed and social networking leading up to the ultimate in technobanality, Twitter.  One step further, and everyone will have an enhanced digital ultrasmart phone that you grasp firmly as it measures your vital signs, stares at the structure of your iris as it “reads” your biometrics, then tells you only what you want to hear. When we reach that point -and we’re getting close- our communities will be limited to a huddled few at the bottom of an electronic valley of acceptable ideas, fearful of ‘the other”, lurking just over the media induced peaks that separate us.

With all the turmoil in the newspaper industry, Negroponte’s ideas occasionally surface, usually with much hand-wringing and bemoaning of a lost past and fruitless searching for models that will preserve some set of journalistic traditions or another.  I am more concerned about what forces will form the nature of our news and our very hopes and desires. Immediately before the Great Depression, President Hoover held a meeting between the captains of American commerce and Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, the father of public relations.  The purpose was to celebrate the power of commerce, advertising and public relations that were driving  America’s growth. As Hoover told them: “You have assumed the job of creating desire and have transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines, machines that have become the key to economic progress.”

Bernays adaptation of Freud’s theories of the psyche to induce people to consume based on desire rather than need is brilliantly documented in “The Century of Self,” a  2002 BBC documentary by Adam Curtis.   It tells “about how those in power have used Freud’s theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy.” He traces the history of Freud and Bernays efforts up through their use in marketing political candidates. Ironically, this was first used in England by Matthew Freud in campaigns for “New Labor” and  Prime Minister Tony Blair. Freud (Matthew) is Sigmund Freud’s great grandson and head of Freud Communications, a major international PR firm that represents Pepsi and Nike, among others. His wife, Elizabeth, is the second daughter of media mogul Rupert Murdoch. While “The Century of Self” has been shown to worldwide acclaim, it has never been aired in America.

Bernays, more than ever, is relevant to modern politics.  The documentary, in its first episode, covers how American corporate interests hired Bernays in an attempt to control what they considered the dangerous animal instincts of the masses, and dismantle everything they could from Roosevelt’s New Deal.  Democracy for everybody was just too dangerous.  They saw a future where continued growth and benign integration of corporate and government rule would lead to a better America.  But Wall Street and the financial community have never been able to constrain their excesses, with a history going all the way back to the Dutch Tulip Mania of 1637, when a single tulip bulb might be sold for ten times the annual salary of a skilled craftsman.  Perhaps tulip brokers were the historical precedents of hedge-fund managers, The collapse of the tulip and the derivative markets were effectively the same, leaving everyone else the poorer.

The use of crowd psychology to manipulate the public has reached a new height in a world where candidates refuse to entertain any questioning of their positions, other than by their chosen media sources.  Consider the Fox network, who are well on their way into subverting our political discourse into nothing more than “reality TV”, complete with the drama of train-wreck candidates whose spouting nothing but homilies to angry people makes great TV.  They give us Glenn Beck and presidential hopefuls huckstering for questionable gold investments, while major private corporations fund “grassroots” movements to stir up public anger that can then be manipulated by Bernays techniques, appealing to desires that have nothing to do with our real wants and needs or the reality in which we live.

Most of those funding the Bernays/Freudian manipulations don’t live on Wall Street or Main Street, but Billionaire’s Row. Forbes 2009 ranking lists 248 private companies each with in excess of $2 billion in annual sales. Their owners, unlike a Wall Street publicly traded corporation regulated by SEC laws, can do whatever they want with their vast fortunes. If you scratch the surface of many of the most conservative and fringe movements, you will find that many of these companies or their owners are behind them. For example, the Koch Brothers,(#2 on the Forbes List) in their “war against Obama”, have given more than $100 million dollars to right wing causes.

Those who follow only one source of information leave themselves open to all sorts of manipulation.  The links below will let you read the lawsuit against Goldline, which lists the celebrities and politicians involved in the scam.   Watch the BBC video. Read the New Yorker article. In politics, investments and poker, if you don’t figure out who is the sucker in the game, it’s probably you.

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The BBC Century of Self

Goldline Lawsuit

Billionaire Koch Brothers funding of fake grassroots initiatives like repealing California’s greenhouse gas law (Prop 23).  Site with links to New Yorker article and other useful sources.

@ John Hulls 2010  (This article is from the upcoming edition of the Russian River Times)

The cartoon in the caption and where the expression, “Yellow Journalism” originated.

The Yellow Kid comes from an era when Hurst and Pulitzer were actively promoting the US involvement in the Spanish-American War with sensationalized reporting to inflame the public and drive up circulation, featuring giant scare headlines and imaginary drawings, scandal mongering, faked and overly edited interviews and a host of other tricks all too common in today’s media.  The Yellow Kid was so popular that Hearst stole the cartoonist, R.F. Outcault, away from the Pulitzer papers which was not difficult as Pulitzer was becoming ever more erratic and hard on his employees.

The more sedate New York Post coined the term “yellow kid journalism” in a February 1898  piece decrying Hurst and Pulitzer’s warmongering.  Their editor wrote, “”Thus far the question of war with Spain has been made alarmingly sensational only by the few yellow-kid newspapers of the country, which are ready to sacrifice the truth and inflame popular prejudices to open wider markets for the reading of journals which each day must contradict what they published before.”   The term was soon shortened to “yellow journalism”.

For a scholarly and entertaining description of The Kid and social, economic, racial  and journalistic issues of this colorful time, I recommend Mary Wood of the University of Virginia and her excellent website at:

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