"How Fox News Made My Dad Crazy" is how The Daily Beast introduced Jen Yamato's profile of Jen Senko's left-wing documentary The Brainwashing Of My Dad, and that's not just headline hyperbole but an accurate summary of a truly wacky documentary.
Used her dad as a political prop, Senko's Brainwashing doc, which has been kicking around a while but just found a suitable home at a Michael Moore film festival, purports to show how her loving, "goofy," popular dad became a racist homophobic Republican pig thanks to radio hosts (the late) Bob Grant and Rush Limbaugh – a dangerous dosage of audio hate drug injected via long daily car commute. But how to deprogram a dittohead?
Produced by liberal actor Matthew Modine, Brainwashing serves as a farcical companion piece to NYT reporter Jackie Calmes' recent Harvard report warning of the rise of conservative media. But Senko's documentary, interpreted through Yamato's sympathetic screed, makes Calmes' rant look positively understated:
In a new documentary unveiled this week at Michael Moore’s film festival, one filmmaker takes aim at the “vast right-wing conspiracy” Hillary once put on blast. The Brainwashing Of My Dad also warns of how generations of Americans have been tricked into an angry cult-like devotion to a new conservative lord and savior: Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.
Her case study? Her own dad.
Jen Senko first noticed the change in her father sometime during the 1980s when he picked her up from the bus station for a visit home. On the road they passed a Hooters. That’s when the once-gentle Kennedy Democrat and family man started railing against the “feminazis” for protesting the chicken ’n’ cleavage-slingin’ chain.
“I said, ‘Maybe the feminists have a point,’” Senko recalls in her feature-length documentary The Brainwashing Of My Dad, an attempt to understand how the evolution of right-wing media transformed her loving parent into a hostile and isolated fanatic.
His reaction was shocking and extreme, wildly out of character. “He was so mad he threatened to pull the car over and let me hitchhike home,” she says.
It was just the beginning of a sharp change in character that, ex-hippie Senko eventually realized, coincided with her father’s increasing idolatry of the radical right-wing-media and his “hero”: talk radio lion Rush Limbaugh.
Hmm. Given that Limbaugh's radio show didn't go national until August 1988, and Limbaugh's coinage of "feminazi" is documented on Rush-obsessed liberal sites as occurring in the early 1990s, one wonders if Senko has her facts nailed down when she says vaguely that this exchange happened "sometime during the 1980s." But forget it, she's rolling, and Beast writer Yamato's hysterical tone dovetails perfectly with Senko's mock-worthy documentary, which, judging by the foreboding trailer, resembles a parody of a government PSA warning about gateway drugs.
It began when the filmmaker’s father took a new job that required long commutes and he started listening to right-wing talk shows on the radio on his drives. They turned out to be merely the gateway drug. As Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel took off and ushered in a new era of 24-hour news cycles and rabid punditry, Senko’s dad became more obsessed. He started sleeping in another room, leaving his wife in their bedroom, so he could watch Fox News all night.
Senko shows her familial affection by treating her father as a political prop and victim of mental illness.
As Senko dove deeper into the mesmerizing and addictive effect that talk radio, Fox News, and radical right blogs had on her father, she started turning to experts to understand how American media had become so sharply unbalanced over the past four decades.
Check out Senko's line up of "experts": "...Noam Chomsky, CNN’s Reese Schonfeld, progressive talk radio host Thom Hartmann, media critic Jeff Cohen, Media Matters founder David Brock, and Republican political consultant Frank Luntz."
As always with the left, the political is personal, with Yamato calling the documentary the story of "one family slowly losing a loved one to ugly political extremism. "
What’s more alarming than his blustery rhetoric, according to the film, is that Limbaugh’s rise to power and influence not only took him into the hearts and homes of millions but also made him and talk radio hosts like him the news source of choice for Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia. “Imagine that you’re a Supreme Court justice deciding on things like war and peace, civil liberties, gay marriage, and your window into the world is Rush Limbaugh’s three-hour monologue,” says media critic Jeff Cohen. “That’s pretty damn scary.”
Senko gets conspiratorial, imagining the Fox News sets as inspired by subliminal messaging, a la The Hidden Persuaders.
Those brightly colored sets and disorienting camera movements? They’re designed to throw the audience off-kilter, the film argues, so that the anchor du jour can be a centering force, the voice of authority setting you on solid ground....
Senko then went on an obscene rant, unconvincingly suggesting liberals are just too darn polite (herself excepted, evidently):
Senko says the problem is only right-wing media are using these kinds of tricks. “Centrists and liberals and progressives have to wake up and smell the fucking coffee,” she told me. “We’ve all sort of been polite. Liberals, progressives, we want to be fair -- but it’s not about being fair, it’s about being objective. So I really hope to make people aware of this. Oh my God, it’s the media, stupid.”
Senko goes full Nazi, without apology:
To that end, Senko’s film takes a fiercely unapologetic stance; at one point, she invokes a quote by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels in an archival montage of conservative news anchors linking WMDs to Iraq. “Goebbels actually did look at American advertising to get ideas for propaganda, so there’s a tie-in there,” she said. “I guess it’ll rock some boats, but I feel like it’s accurate and I stand by it.”
As for Senko and her now-elderly dad, they’re back on good terms these days. She hopes sharing their story gets more families like hers talking over the dinner table, bleeds over into the election, and injects a healthy dose of skepticism into the lives of the Limbaugh-worshiping dittoheads and Fox News addicts of the world.
No word on those "progressives" who take every word Jon Stewart or Rachel Maddow say as the unchallenged truth.
But if a gentle lecture over the dinner table is insufficient to deprogram a dittohead, Senko is prepared to squelch conservative speech, just to be sure.
"Maybe groups will decide they want to bring back the Fairness Doctrine. Maybe there will just be a common knowledge among people that saw the movie and the next time somebody says something [citing right-wing media] they'll say, 'They lie. They make stuff up,'" Senko muses....