In a case of uncanny timing, Jen Senko’s prescient documentary The Brainwashing of My Dad arrives to recount the rise of right-wing cable news and conservative talk radio through a relatable personal family story and a refresher on recent American history. Through anecdotal and social science research, Senko’s film also provides much-needed insight as to why Donald Trump’s caustic discourse and demagoguery is catnip for so many people.
Senko’s film begins with her father’s story. By all accounts, Frank Senko, a World War II veteran, was an affable, funny, considerate guy and an apolitical Kennedy Democrat in his younger days. When his daily commute got longer, he began listening to talk radio, particularly Rush Limbaugh (whom he calls “one of my heroes”), and his political views turned 180 degrees. He began to rail against the poor and disenfranchised, minorities, homosexuals, and the worst of the lot: Democrats. The filmmaker says that her dad’s intolerance only intensified when he discovered Fox News, and in interviews with immediate family members and others, they all confirm that he became pretty much unbearable. It was impossible to talk to him about socio-economic issues rationally; it was his way or the highway. Discussions would often end in arguments or bitterness. His family threatened to block his email address if he continued to forward political propaganda.
In looking into her dad’s obsession with Fox News and conservative media, Senko discovers that her family is far from alone in their experience. During the film’s Kickstarter campaign, she finds “a real phenomenon” of loved ones who became “enraged and unaccessible (sic) after listening to right-wing media.” Senko talked to dozens, if not hundreds, of people in similar situations. “My brother became very fact resistant,” says one interviewee.
Just when we begin to dread that the film will drone on with more in-person or Skype interviews of people talking about their cranky grandfathers or crazy aunts and uncles, the film transitions from a personal narrative to a history of American politics and media from the latter half of the 20th century onward. In between standard talking head interviews, Senko’s film uses an assortment of home movie clips, vintage stock photos, news footage, infographics, terrific animation by Academy Award nominee Bill Plympton, and voiceovers from her and actor Matthew Modine, one of the film’s producers, to create an accessible entry to a complex topic. Is the film fair and balanced? Probably as much as Fox News is—but it’s thought-provoking and eye-opening nonetheless.
Senko interviews journalists, historians, educators and political commentators about the tools of the trade employed by master manipulators. Gabriel Sherman, author of The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News—and Divided a Country, explains how Ailes, Fox’s chairman, helped President Richard Nixon’s administration earn favorable coverage by focusing them on the “traditional family values” platform and opposing groups of people who clashed against the regular working man—feminists, racial justice advocates and anti-war protestors. Ailes plays a key role in the rise of right-wing media: From early on in his career, Ailes understood the power of the soundbyte and the television audience’s passivity—tenets he carried over to Fox News.
In quick succession, The Brainwashing of My Dad covers an extensive list of subjects in its 90 minutes (almost too many to go into much depth on any of them), from the anti-Communist John Birch Society to Republican Barry Goldwater’s 1964 failed presidential bid to trickle-down economics and the end of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. The FCC’s doctrine, which called for broadcasters to present balanced reporting for controversial issues, was eliminated under President Ronald Reagan’s administration. Its revocation led to an explosion of talk radio: By the following year, Rush Limbaugh went national, and he and many others tapped into the insecurities of mostly white men, employing tactics such as bullying, shaming and “in your face” discussions to ensure that the conservative message is spread. Most jaw-dropping are examples of how Limbaugh and others (hello, Bill O’Reilly) told both the truth and lies with equal conviction.
Appealing to American injured pride creates a backlash against social change. and The Brainwashing of My Dad is a fascinating look at American society. While it will probably cater more to the tastes of media hounds and policy wonks, the film is still a worthwhile watch for anyone who wants to understand how such an insane personality like Trump’s is this election cycle’s most promising candidate.
Director: Jen Senko
Writer: Jen Senko
Starring: Jen Senko, Frank Senko, Eileen Senko, Walter Senko, David Brock, Gabriel Sherman, George Lakoff, Noam Chomsky, Frank Luntz
Release Date: March 18, 2016 (NY, LA and VOD)
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.