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How Talk Radio and Fox News Brainwashed My Dad

A filmmaker's father came to believe the extreme right-wing lies of Rush Limbaugh and other conservative media mavens.

Jen Senko is a filmmaker who watched in horror as her father slowly came to believe the extreme right-wing lies of Rush Limbaugh and other conservative media mavens. Now she’s making a documentary about it called The Brainwashing of My Dad.

Senko's first documentary, Road Map Warrior Women, won recognition with several festival awards. Her most recent film, The Vanishing City, co-directed with Fiore DeRosa, exposes the economic policies that have made New York a city for the rich. The Vanishing City won Best Feature Documentary in the Williamsburg International Film Festival, Best Short Documentary in the Harlem International Film Festival, and Honorable Mention in the Los Angeles International Film Festival.

Rory O'Connor, a filmmaker and author whose works include the book, Shock Jocks: Hate Speech and Talk Radio, interviewed Senko about her film.

Rory O'Connor: Tell us about the origins of your film. When did you first notice your dad's 'brainwashing," and when did you determine to make a documentary film about it?

Jen Senko: I remember the first time I really noticed it. My dad picked me up from the bus station when I was visiting from New York. On the way home we passed a Hooters and he started complaining about the "attack" against Hooters by the establishment, and saying how silly it was and how it interfered with our freedom. 

He was frighteningly angry—excited, argumentative, belligerent... I didn’t understand why. I tried to change the subject and said something about all the SUVs I was seeing on the road—this was in the '80s, when they first came out. My dad had always been a “non-waster” and tightwad—anytime he got gas he marked it down in a little book to keep track of how much he was spending—so I thought he would agree. I was flabbergasted when he got even angrier and threatened to pull over and let me hitchhike the rest of the way home.

If you said anything that he would disagree with politically, it would trigger an extremely large reaction. For example, once on an online dating site, I specified, “No Republicans please.” He found out about it somehow, called and left a phone message. He was sputtering, so mad he could hardly speak, and blurted out, “Don't ask me for help anymore.” He stopped just short of disowning me.

ROC: Describe the specifics of your father's transformation. How did it happen? And why? 

JS: When I was growing up, no one seemed particularly political. Both my parents were Democrats. Republicans were just other people. My father used to get to work in a car pool when we were growing up in West Long Branch, NJ. When he got a promotion, we moved to Maryland and then he had a long-distance solo drive to work. He started listening to talk radio to pass the time.

He didn’t like to waste time so driving and listening to talk radio I’m sure seemed "educational" to him. It was Bob Grant. Bob Grant was a bombastic, rude, openly racist and sexist radio host. And very slowly, my dad began to change.

Then when he started listening to Rush Limbaugh, that was when I started getting worried. He hated Bill Clinton with a passion I thought was bordering on obsessive. As for why it happened, at this point I can only guess. Unlike my mother, he was easily influenced and seemed to respond to anything he thought was not fair or unjust. He was sort of naïve in a way—people would tell him a story and he would be a little gullible, because he had an open personality.

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