ADDICTED TO ANGER?: Jen Senko explores the rise of right-wing media in the documentary THE BRAINWASHING OF MY DAD
“Back then I was deaf, dumb and happy” says Frank, the father of Jen Senko, describing himself in his apolitical, pre Fox-News -watching days. However, after a new job caused a long car commute, during which he listened to talk radio hosts speaking of “feminazis” and Clinton-murder-conspiracies, he transformed.
Frank, who previously had been a mild-mannered animal lover and devoted husband, now was bitterly upset that feminists were protesting Hooters, and going to bed wearing headphones so he could continue to listen to right-wing talk radio at night. He became prone to saying things like “Rush Limbaugh is my hero. I agree with him in all things” and sending hundreds of fuming emails to friends and family. Senko, in a bold and interesting move, started a Kickstarter campaign to fund a documentary exploring her father’s conversion, and the response was outsized, with many getting in touch to discuss analogous situations, where loved ones had become “fact resistant” and “obsessed and unreasonable,” only finding joy in their conservative outrage.
Co-narrated by Senko and the redoubtable Matthew Modine, THE BRAINWASHING OF MY DAD examines the history of right-wing fanaticism from the mid-20th century to today and its creeping control of discourse in our society. Views considered extremist and unpalatable, such as the John Birch society suggesting the “bad guys” aren’t in China or Cuba, but right here in our government, were considered largely “dead” in the 1960s when Barry Goldwater was soundly defeated.
However, young Nixon aide Roger Ailes understood that emotion is more important than facts in winning an audience, and has spent fifty years remodeling American media with no small help from conservative think-tanks and politicians who desired a way to get the working man to vote the conservative party line. The film efficiently and stimulatingly lays out the steps taken, including a 1971 confidential memo by Lewis Powell widely circulated amongst conservatives that outlined a plan to dominate media; the creation of the precursor to Fox News, TVN, owned by the Coors family and whose motto was “fair and balanced,”; and the removal of the broadcasting fairness doctrine after 50 years in 1987, which allowed Fox News to create programs focused on character assassination of those whose beliefs didn’t dovetail with theirs.
The fruitful strategy was to convince the white working class that the real snobs are not those who hire and fire and sit in country clubs looking down at the less fortunate in our society, but those who decide cultural trends. Nixon and his crew fashioned the conservative populism which endures until today, where people vote on morals and against economic self-interest.
Senko’s father apparently is an example of what the film contends was a key to Rush Limbaugh and Fox News’ success: nurturing the injured pride of aging white men, stating “your problems aren’t caused by you, but caused by others unlike you.” Senko’s father, who previously was an animal lover prone to convincing mom to take in another pet, had turned to sending his daughter PETA mailers with the acronym “Peta” scratched out.
THE BRAINWASHING OF MY DAD is exasperating, reasonable and downright alarming. Several former Fox News commentators and Limbaugh fans testify to the emotional manipulation that led to illogical and irate viewer responses, indicating that “Anger” could be an addiction like any other and millions of conservative media fans weren’t satisfied unless there was a target for the outrage they’d work up on a daily basis. (I myself ponder if both sides of the political spectrum aren’t now subscribing to this “let’s find a new way to be a victim” philosophy with the development of Facebook and Twitter). But the film astutely makes the personal political and the political personal by both studying the larger picture of media manipulation in our culture and the more intimate and compassionate story of losing a loving family member to what is compellingly argued to be “cult” behavior.
Produced by Modine and Adam Rackoff, THE BRAINWASHING OF MY DAD is brisk, with bouncy Bill Plympton animations and good historical footage utilized alongside the standard-format talking heads, who include Noam Chomsky, Claire Connors, Jeff Cohen and Steve Rendall. THE BRAINWASHING OF MY DAD may not be “fair and balanced,” but any objective viewer will want to see Renko’s father returned to his family, which makes the resolution of the film rather poignant in an agreeably low-key way. Check it out.
Opening Theatrically in New York (Cinema Village) and Los Angeles (Laemmle Music Hall) on Friday, March 18.
WITH DAY AND DATE VIDEO ON DEMAND RELEASE
THE BRAINWASHING OF MY DAD
Directed by: JEN SENKO
Narrated by: JEN SENKO and MATTHEW MODINE
Produced by: MATTHEW MODINE & ADAM RACKOFF
Featuring animation by Academy Award nominee BILL PLYMPTON
Official Website: www.thebrainwashingofmydad.com