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 naÃ¯ve in a way—people would tell him a story and he would be a little gullible, because he had an open personality.
So when Rush Limbaugh told him that poor people and Mexicans and blacks and feminazis were to blame for well, everything, he got mad too and took it up as his cause. He would get super-angry and bite the middle of his tongue and look like he was going to explode.
ROC: How exactly did his behavior change?
JS: When I was growing up my dad seemed to love everybody. I never heard any kind of talk against any race or ethnicity. He was funny and goofy and talked to anybody....When I was in college I knew a lot of gays, and he was friendly and even gregarious and even thought them "cultured." He wasn't prejudiced at all. It wasn't until later that he underwent a radical change.
I remember one time in particular when we went to New York to go to Radio City Music Hall. A black homeless man asked him for money. My father called him sir and gave him money. That is imprinted on my memory. When my dad changed, he became obsessive. He got angrier. After he retired, he would sit in the kitchen and eat his lunch and listen to Rush Limbaugh for three full hours a day. God forbid you interrupt Rush. He tried to inject his political views into any conversation he had, with anybody. Around Christmas-time (not just on Christmas Day) he would be sure to shout “Merry Christmas” to anyone and everyone, because he believed that liberals were engaging in a war on Christmas.
He believed it when Rush Limbaugh told him that climate change is a hoax. He called Al Gore an “asshole” even after watching the entire An Inconvenient Truth—by then he could not be moved. He also would compliment smokers on smoking. When we would go to a restaurant and people sat outside to smoke, he would take a deep breath and exclaim how good it smelled.
This was because Rush Limbaugh told him that the scientists were lying about the findings about smoking—oh, and those greedy scientists just wanted funding money and that’s why they were perpetrating this myth about climate change being caused by humans. You couldn’t argue with him. He was one angry, whirling, right-wing dervish. He even got mail from and gave money to the NRA though never owned a gun in his life. My mother found he wrote all these checks to various right-wing causes.
ROC: What are the forces that you see having changed your father and his behavior?
JS: Interesting that you ask that question because it is such a central component in my film. I’ve been told that using the word “conspiracy” is not a good idea. But there were specific plans drawn up, some in secret, by members of the Republican elite to create a major change from the political direction the country was moving in (namely more progressive) to one with much more emphasis on business through, in large part, the media. Those forces turned into changes in the media and the language and framing of values and messages like “liberal media” being repeated over and over. They created scapegoats to blame, and produced a hostility within him towards other people that he felt should be making it on their own—no excuses! He became convinced that if they were suffering it was their own fault.
ROC: How can media habits actually have such a pronounced effect on people, to change them so radically?
JS: By media habits, I’ll answer as if you mean listening or watching habits. In the film, Steve Rendell discusses the personal nature of talk radio. There is an intimate connection between the radio and the listener. As for the effect it has on people, I think any message told repeatedly has an effect on people. It works in advertising and it works in forming one’s political views.
ROC: How has your father reacted to your proposed film? Is he supportive? Does he think you are part of the "liberal media"?
JS: My dad knows that I'm making a film about him. I'm always filming something. He's proud of me. We get along great now. I love him to pieces. And I won't give the film away but he is not the same person he was three years ago. My father has always loved me, but I think had this film been made during the time of his political obsession that love would have been greatly tested.
ROC: Are you hearing from other people in the same familial boat? How many?
JS: More than I could have ever imagined. The right-wing media noise machine has had a profound affect on lives of individuals, whether they listen to it or not.
ROC: Is this more a male phenomenon in your opinion? Is it more prevalent in any one group?
JS: It is more of a male phenomenon. Rush's audience is 72% men and most are white over the age of 65, and with Fox and other outlets, it’s similar stats. However, I have met people across the board who get sucked into right-wing media outlets. It always surprises me.
You can somewhat understand the draw for white men. In the past, it was almost a guarantee that merely by being a white male one could assume a good job and a certain social status. Their roles in the world were turned upside-down during the civil rights era of the '60s and '70s. Men had very specific roles and suddenly they were being challenged by women and minorities. They either had to adapt or reinvent themselves or find a sympathetic voice that told them it wasn't their fault and there were groups to blame. And that anger, even though it's anger, is still passion. It provides a purpose and I believe anger can be addictive. It can be a rush.
ROC: Is there an antidote to this brainwashing? A cure?
JS: That’s part of what my film is about. The answer is deprogramming by exposing lies, but part of the problem is how to get them to listen.
ROC: Is it really brainwashing or is that a metaphor, an exaggeration?
JS: That’s a good question. And I’m not sure I can answer it one way or another. Perhaps some people think that brainwashing is an exaggeration, but I, and others, have seen profound and frightening changes in people they would never have imagined possible. What is brainwashing? In the '50s and '60s when there were red-scare movies like The Manchurian Candidate—those movies showed how someone could be led to act against their own beliefs and their own interests. My father voted against his own interests as do many of these Fox viewers and right-wing radio listeners. How is that different from the notion of brainwashing?
ROC: Aren't liberal opinion outfits, like MSNBC, guilty of much the same thing from the other side of the political spectrum?
JS: I think it is impossible not to have a bias in media. But, I also think there is a difference between facts and opinion. Right-wingers I know always challenge me with that question. And I answer it this way: I say MSNBC largely is a "tattletale." They talk about and try to expose the right's lies.
The second thing MSNBC does that Fox doesn't do is correct themselves when they make a mistake. They are, however, decidedly pro-administration and since they have a corporate media structure behind them they can't go too liberal. As Jeff Cohen would say, there's a very narrow debate in the news. You have extreme right, right and MSNBC is center-left. Although Chris Hayes can be pretty in your face and honest, Al Sharpton wouldn't say anything bad about the president.
ROC: Tell us about some of the people interviewed in your film, such as George Lakoff, Jeff Cohen, Edward Herman etc. Why did you choose them?
JS: Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky and the others made me aware that not only is there no so-called “liberal media,” which I knew, but that all of the media is biased toward business.
ROC: Isn’t all media a form of brainwashing in some sense?
JS: I don’t think so. No, I think there are very different ways the media operates, and perhaps intent is part of that.
It’s a very complex answer. Media can be a form of brainwashing depending on the viewer/listener. Most people who choose to ingest one type of media are going to get influenced by that media. Unless people read a lot on their own—and most people don’t have time to—they will listen to and believe whatever is fed them. And that’s easier to do when you have uneducated masses of people.
A less educated mass also serves the corporate purpose. Thus the push for charter schools, by the way. They can teach them what they want to teach them. There are also those who gravitate toward an authoritarian media who blame others for your troubles. If people aren’t doing well in life, it gives them a passion to be angry and have someone else to blame, like poor people and minorities.
ROC: You say, "Documentarians are the new journalists." What does that mean? What happened to the "old" journalists?
JS: Most journalists work for a corporate-owned media. That said, corporations have an agenda and like many corporations they want to keep costs down and provide “gains” for their shareholders. So they don’t pay the journalist what they need to be paid in order to do a thorough job. And most importantly, a “thorough job” wouldn’t serve their corporate interest anyway.
Though there are some great journalists who write for truly independent online publications—like AlterNet—documentarians now are also telling the stories in another medium that can possibly reach more people and with less outside influence. For instance, Josh Fox’s Gasland films are super-important and that’s why the right is going to try to disparage documentarians.
ROC: What are your hopes and goals for this film?
JS: Ha! Always, my hope is to help save the world in some way. In a way that I know how to and that is, to tell a personal story accompanied by facts and information that isn't out there and compiled. There are many books out there but we need film. It’s more accessible to more people. In my wildest dreams I would hope that it becomes one of those "known" things that Fox News is Faux News and convinces people to vote against their own interests and hate anybody who doesn't think like they do. I would like for their jig to be up. And I would hope that liberals could learn a little something about framing and language, as the brilliant George Lakoff talks about.
ROC: What is the status of your Kickstarter campaign and how can people find it?
JS: We did surpass the initial goal of $15,000. At the moment we are at around $26,000. I have stretch goals, which would enable us to get much further along in the film. As of Thursday, October 10 there will be 20 more days.
ROC: What actions do you hope to drive viewers to take, if any?
JS: As I see Fox News being played in more and more doctors' offices, airports, lobbies of any sort, ask your doctor or whomever why they would choose to show such a divisive program, and ask them to please stop. My mom has done it. I have done it. It doesn’t take that much time to do. Just politely complain and suggest they show something more neutral. That’s just one among many things.
There’s also a great organization called StopRush and they swarm targeted advertisers that advertise with Rush Limbaugh. And clamor for the Fairness Doctrine to be reinstated!
ROC: If you had 30 seconds to speak to Rush Limbaugh, what would you say?
JS: I guess I’d ask him a number of “why”s. Why do you do what you do? Is it the money? Do you believe what you say? Do you realize you have been a party to the destruction of families all across America by tearing them apart into “Dittoheads” versus non-Rushies? How do you feel about yourself? Are you proud of yourself? Then I would call him a Fat Fuck (not that there’s anything wrong with being fat).