“My dad really was radicalized,” says filmmaker Jen Senko, director of, The Brainwashing of My Dad, a documentary coming to the Salem Progressive Film Series. “I don’t mean he went around blowing stuff up, I just mean he was a fanatic. He became evangelical about his beliefs. He lived and breathed them. They were the most important thing to him.”
For instance, after his “radicalization,” when her father sent emails, they were “always a forward of an extreme political email. They were never anything personal. When company would visit, he’d have to bring up his political point of view and find out ‘what side they were on.’ He… joined every right-wing group there was, from the NRA to the Leave-God-on-the-Penny. He gave them all money, too.”
Most concerning to Senko was how her father’s personality altered. “He was once funny and open-minded and loved to talk to all kinds of people,” she says. “After his radicalization he became very angry and critical of other groups.”
It wasn’t long after Senko connected her father’s changed temperament to his exposure to right wing media, that she put out the word on the internet, asking if her dad’s transformation was just an isolated case.
She heard back from scores of people who shared stories of how previously tolerant family members had descended into anger, bigotry and racism; how they no longer had conversations but instead held one-sided rants, how they now demeaned, insulted or even disowned those who disagreed with them. It seemed to be a political phenomenon.
The 40-year evolution of the American right wing media and the way it has changed the thinking in this country is the subject of this 2015 movie. Through interviews with social researchers, cognitive linguists, grassroots activists and media luminaries, the film presents the plan to shift the country to the Right over the last 40 years, and how these venues deliberately work to achieve less tolerance, fewer voices, and deliberate misinformation.
Senko traces the way the slow introduction of broadcasters such as Rush Limbaugh, and how his ascendance was made possible by events such at the Lewis Powell’s 1971 Memo to the Chamber of Commerce and the 1996 Telecommunications Reform Act, both of which transformed conservative’s understanding of how to shape and project their message. Specific attention is paid to Roger Ailes, founder and former Chairman and CEO of Fox News and the Fox Television Stations Group who began his career as media consultant for Republican presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush.
As long as there have been news outlets there have been accusations of manipulative journalism. But Senko believes that Fox News and conservative radio programs featuring Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Michael Savage take their messages to the level of actual propaganda.
“Fox and right-wing outlets are special,” in terms of the slanted way they present reality, she says. “They were absolutely brilliant and thorough in their planning and laying the groundwork for their media. First of all, they had Roger Ailes, a genius when it came to television; a successful producer at 26 [who] understood the medium better than anybody. A memo he passed around the Nixon White House, called “A Plan for Putting the GOP on TV News,” said 59% of people get their news from television and ‘They want their thinking done for them.’”
Senko’s film also describes the explosion of right-wing radio that came about after Ronald Reagan’s administration abolished The Fairness Doctrine which had been established in 1949 to ensure that contrasting viewpoints be heard. That was the same year that Rush Limbaugh went national.
There have been numerous right-wing radio hosts since Limbaugh, Senko says, “And, what they all understand is that if they use emotion, they keep people’s interest. If they use anger, they convince people they are righteous – and if they use fear, rational thinking goes out the window. It’s a perfect storm. You add lying to that, and you have millions of people unwittingly voting against their own interests.”
The film could hardly be timelier, since Senko believes that without right-wing media, there would be no Trump Phenomenon.
“He would not have the mass number of followers that he has and I also believe that he, himself, was also shaped by listening to Hate Radio. People have good and bad sides, and I believe Trump has brought out the worst in his followers. It’s truly unfortunate. He constantly stays at around 37% popularity and those are the people that are most impacted by right-wing media. Even if they do not listen or watch themselves, they are influenced by what their friends say.”
Trump knows how to hit the same buttons that right-wing media experts have established decades ago, Senko says. “He knows the rhythm of the speech, he knows the buzz words, and he knows that emotion is what his followers respond to. It’s perfect for him, because he’s not a deep-thinking or well-informed man. I don’t think he has the patience for in-depth exploration of an issue. All he has to do is hit the right notes.”
What ultimately happened to Senko’s changed dad? What actions can people concerned about the power of the negative impact of right-wing media take?
Answers – some of them surprising – will be revealed to attendees on October 18.
After the screening, Jen Senko will discuss the movie with attendees. Also speaking will be award-winning journalist Naseem Rakha, familiar to locals who have heard her stories on NPR’s All Things Considered and Morning Edition, among other programs.
The Brainwashing of My Dad
Salem Progressive Film Series
Guest speakers & audience discussion follow
Tuesday, Oct. 18, 7 p.m.
Salem’s Historic Grand Theatre
191 High St. NE, Salem