The zombies in Jen Senko’s documentary, The Brainwashing of My Dad, arise in the wake of inflammatory rhetoric used by the likes of talk radio’s Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly of Fox News. Senko’s ninety-minute film examines the techniques and effects of rightwing media on listeners, viewers, and readers, and especially on the film maker’s father, a World War II veteran who once voted Democratic before falling under the spell of toxic disinformation.
Brainwashing investigates the historical development of righty indoctrination, using clips from news shows and films (including 1962’s Cold War thriller, The Manchurian Candidate), some animation by two-time Oscar nominee Bill Plympton, interviews with Limbaugh and Fox acolytes and their estranged loved ones. Among the pundits and commentators it interviews are Noam Chomsky, David Brock, George Lakoff, Thom Hartmann, Frank Luntz, and Jeff Cohen. A Fox contributor for five years, Cohen has since co-founded Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and is director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College.
Cohen participated in a post-screening Q & A at Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles, along with Senko, executive producer and CodePinker Jodie Evans, and actor Matthew Modine, the film’s narrator. He also spoke with The Progressive about Brainwashing, which opened in Los Angeles, NYC, Madison, and Delaware on March 18.
Q: Tell us about The Brainwashing of My Dad and the director’s dad.
Jeff Cohen: Jen Senko did a masterful job. She contacted me because at FAIR we did so much work debunking Limbaugh and Fox. There have been other documentaries that dissect corporate-dominated news media, but there’s never been one that had such a personal angle.
Aging white males within millions of families—who were previously mild-mannered, not politically involved people—were turned over a period of time into embittered, sometimes bigoted people as a result of being glued to these news outlets. Jen’s father, Frank Senko, got a job switch requiring him to commute hours. He got hooked on rightwing talk radio, which led to getting hooked on Fox. Before you know it, family meals were nightmares.
The beauty of this movie is it’s personal and political: It’s about Jen, her family and dad, and it’s universal, because it’s happened to millions of families. When Jen ran a chunk of the movie on a Kickstarter campaign she [solicited] personal anecdotes like hers… So a good part of the movie is these very heartfelt stories of folks being almost taken into a cult and the kind of division it led to.
Q: What’s the documentary’s relevance right now?
Cohen: I’m thrilled this eye-opening film is coming out during an election season where it virtually predicted the rise of the Trump character. I know of no other documentary that so reveals the media propaganda and misinformation that has given rise to Trump-ism. It’s hard to believe there would be a “HYUGE” Trump campaign today without the rightwing media infrastructure [that] this movie exposes.
It sparks discussions about what do we do about a corporate-dominated media that features and promotes rightwing propaganda, candidates, movements, and seems to glory in it. Last night, we talked about CBS CEO Les Moonves’ quotes saying, “the Trump campaign has been wonderful for our revenue. Go Donald!” If you have a media system controlled by six giant conglomerates, it’s inevitable they’ll promote a Trump candidacy, while pushing a Bernie Sanders candidacy to the margins, which is what they’re doing.
For years, I’ve said the lowest point in the mainstream media history in decades was the run up to the Iraq invasion. I now believe the lowest point is TV news’ coverage of Trump. There would be no Trump campaign without television news. They have basically been the Trump show. Donald Trump, at times last year, was getting more coverage than all other candidates combined, and softer treatment. They promote and pander to Trump and his racism because it’s good for ratings.
Q: Brainwashing argues that the way to deprogram these cult-like followers of rightwing sources is to expose them not to just leftwing outlets, but to multiple viewpoints.
Cohen: That’s right. There’s a great personal anecdote in the documentary about a ditto-head who’s always in his vehicle for work. But one day, on the weekend, there’s no Limbaugh and he switches [channels] and comes across this public radio show, “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” That led him to listening to NPR; it made him compare its approach to the news to rightwing media’s.