“The Brainwashing of My Dad”: Rightwing agitprop’s cult-like effects

Audiences usually encounter zombies in horror flicks, but they’re also in Jen Senko’s “The Brainwashing of My Dad” in the form of Rush Limbaugh’s “dittoheads” and Fox News viewers. Senko’s 90-minute documentary explores the techniques of and effects rightwing media has on listeners/viewers/readers, such as the filmmaker’s father, a WWII veteran who’d voted Democratic before falling under the spell of toxic talk and TV disinformation. “Brainwashing” investigates the historical development of right-wing indoctrination with news and film clips (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, plus a variety of pundits and commentators, including: Noam Chomsky, David Brock, George Lakoff, Thom Hartmann, Frank Luntz and Jeff Cohen.

A Fox contributor for five years, Cohen later co-founded Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) and is Director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, which bestows the annual Izzy Awards. Cohen participated in post-screening Q&As at L.A.’s Laemmle Music Hall with Senko, executive producer/CodePinker Jodie Evans and actor Matthew Modine (Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 anti-Vietnam “Full Metal Jacket”, Spike Lee’s 2000 “Bamboozled”, HBO’s upcoming Anita Hill movie “Confirmation”), who co-produced and narrated “Brainwashing.” While in L.A. Cohen spoke with the author about “Brainwashing”, which opened there plus in NYC, Madison and Delaware in March and is now playing at theatres across North America and on VOD platforms (see below).

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, that 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 and then onto rightwing emails. 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, misinformation that has given rise to Trump-ism. It’s hard to believe there’d be a “HYUGE” Trump campaign today without the rightwing media infrastructure having been built over decades, which is what 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 MSM 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… [March 15], cable news showed an empty podium while waiting for Trump, instead of cutting away to Bernie giving a speech… According to [news monitor] Andrew Tyndall, from Jan. 1-to Dec. 1, 2015, ABC’s “World News Tonight” gave Trump 81 minutes of coverage and Bernie 20 seconds.       

Q: “Brainwashing” shows these cult-like followers got all their information from rightwing sources, but the way to deprogram them is not by only exposing “true believers” to leftwing outlets, like “Democracy Now!”, but to multiple viewpoints.

Cohen: That’s right. There’s a great personal anecdote in the documentary about a dittohead 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.

For screenings: www.thebrainwashingofmydad.com/screenings; VOD: www.thebrainwashingofmydad.com/vod-platforms/.

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and author/co-author of four movie history books, including Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States and The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.

Photo: Official movie site


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian/critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.