The Making and Unmaking of a Right Winger
Filmmaker Jen Senko discusses the making of “The Brainwashing of my Dad” and the transformation of her Dad’s behavior after being exposed to Rush Limbaugh and Fox News
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
A new film by Jen Senko called “The Brainwashing of my Dad,” it came out in 2016, deals with the rise of right-wing media in the form of radio and television since the 1960s. It looks at the issue through one person: Frank Senko, Jen’s father. Jen watched Senko’s behavior change drastically after being exposed to Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. As his politics changed, so did his personal relationships with the people around him.
The film investigates the methods which were developed in right-wing think tanks and public relations companies by people like Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch, the methods they use. And of course, others in the business with powerful political tools. Now, let’s see a clip from an interview which Jen Senko had with Frank Luntz, one of the most effective media consultants in the field.
SPEAKER (VIDEO): Frank is the genius right-wing wordsmith who taught Republicans to, instead of saying estate tax, say death tax.
FRANK LUNTZ (VIDEO): I have fought over the validity of the death tax since I started working in this space. And I went out and tested it. And my God, it changed the dynamic of how people looked at policy.
SHARMINI PERIES: Frank Senko passed away in 2016. But before he did, Jen managed to get through to him, and he was able to open his mind to other opinions. Perhaps it is worthwhile to learn how she achieved this. So on to talk about all of this with me is Jen Senko. She’s the producer and director, “The Brainwashing of My Dad.” Good to have you with us.
JEN SENKO: Thanks for having me.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Jen, we live in extremely polarized world. Not only in the media, but Washington is polarized. Geopolitics is extremely polarized. But you term this transformation of your dad, and describe it and you treat it in the film, as if he had joined a cult. Why do you do that?
JEN SENKO: If you study the characteristics of people that are in a cult, you find a lot of the same traits. For instance, this all-knowing leadership. So well how that relates to my dad, he- Rush Limbaugh was everything to him. He would say, Rush Limbaugh is my hero. I believe everything Rush says. I mean, he would come out and say it. Someone else in the film, out of all of the people that I interviewed, another person said that her brother told her, I don’t believe your facts. I only believe Rush.
So there’s that all-knowing authoritarian type of relationship there. And there is also the exclusivity. Anybody else not sharing these beliefs doesn’t belong. And along with that comes sort of a victim, a victimization. They think that anybody not sharing their beliefs is wrong. And is sometimes worse than wrong. And it’s just this utter devotion that they have, and there’s nothing else that can enter their mind. So in that sense it is, it is like a cult. It was like a cult. And I believe that my dad needed deprogramming.
SHARMINI PERIES: Jen, once you group somebody, or a group of people, as cultish, it’s really hard to lead them out of that phrase. Because they feel backed into a wall. But you went through that transformation with your dad. How did you do that?
JEN SENKO: OK. Well, first I just want to address the first part. It’s very difficult for people, once they’re in that state of mind, to get out. Their amygdalas are shown to actually be bigger. So they’re reacting with fear and anger. So what happens is a sort of cognitive dissonance. They can’t hear anything that’s contrary to what they already believe, and they’re all-invested in what they believe.
But what happened with my dad, and anybody who sees the movie will see how it happened, my parents moved to a senior community. And in that move, things get broken. My dad’s radio got broken. And this is how he spent his lunches. He had three hour, what I called three hour Limbaugh lunches. So when the radio broke, he put it in the garage on his I-need-to-fix-it table. It didn’t really get fixed. And he and my mom started having lunch together again. And so they had conversations. So that was something that that made him a little bit less fiery.
But he still watched Fox, and he still got all of the emails, and he belonged to every email group there was, from the NRA to Christian rights to whatever. And so-. But one day the TV in the kitchen just conked out. You know, it was pretty old. So they got a new TV, and my mother loves programming remotes, so she programmed the remotes, and she had little stickies on them. My dad just didn’t want to bother. So Fox News was gone. She just watched what she watched, and they engaged in conversation.
OK, so more time goes by. My dad ends up getting a kidney stone, goes into the hospital for, like, a week. And they had these really old computers. And my, my mother, when I was visiting, and visiting with Dad, she asked me, can you kill some of Daddy’s emails, because they’re taking up space on his computer. So I told her I’m doing that, but they just keep coming, because he’s subscribed to this. So she got the idea of unsubscribing him to some of them. Originally it was to save space on its computer. But then she started subscribing him to more liberal emails, or reader-supported news type emails. And very gradually, he just, he softened. And one day he said to her, she called me up very amazed, and said, Daddy just said that he liked Obama. I said, you’re kidding. And then like a week later she said she called me again and said, he just said it again.
And I noticed my dad’s personality changing back to what it had been, which was happy, you know, singing, whistling, being loving, being more interested in the family and not argumentative. He was just wonderful to be around. We got really close again. You know it had been strained for some time because of his argumentative nature. And so, very slowly, his views began to change. It’s not like he became a liberal or a hardcore Democrat. In fact, he even says about himself, I’m not all Democrat and I’m not all Republican. The point is that his ability to think, his Socratic thinking came back. And he was no longer addicted to this very exciting and angering type of media. So that we were really grateful. It was like a little miracle.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Jen, back then, when we look at, you know, the way in which media influences people’s thinking, like your dad, they were mostly reliant on television and radio. And now that climate has changed. And you mentioned e-mails that your father was getting, but mostly people are now subscribing on social media, and influenced through those sources. Do you think some of the ways in which people are being influenced has changed? How has that changed, and what does one do in this case? I mean, your mother was clever to, you know, disengaged from the right-wing emails he was getting and subscribe him to more reasonable media outlets out there. But that’s not so easily done these days.
JEN SENKO: Well, first of all, there are still a lot of people watching television, especially older people. And the media has changed. In the past, and not that long ago, really, there was, there were fewer choices. And people were kind of on the same page, watching or listening to or reading pretty much the same thing. You had Walter Cronkite, who was the most trusted man in the news. And the news wasn’t trying to be inflammatory. It wasn’t trying to sell an ideology. It wasn’t reliant on advertising, necessarily. It wasn’t trying to make money. But now you have this really hardcore right that has been planning this push to the right for years and years and years.
And you know, there’s different things that will show that, like the Lewis Powell memo, Roger Ailes’ memo before that, saying he wanted to create media for the GOP- you know, for the GOP, which he ended up doing. And so now you have an array of various right-wing media outlets pushing the same thing. And in the same ways, the same verbiage, so they hear the same thing over and over again, and it gets ingrained.
One thing I can say is get people to watch this movie, “The Brainwashing of My Dad,” because I believe if you understand how this happened, how we got here, you can more easily fix a problem. Also, it clues you into ways that propaganda works, so you’re better able to understand, OK, I understand how that’s working. And like, maybe with older people, you can get them out of the house, you know, provide different outlets of entertainment for them. It’s not easy.
But also, there’s this group called Hear Yourself Think. And they actually have workshops where they teach you how to talk to people that are on the other side. And it shouldn’t be, a different side, I should say that. But how to break through. And you really can’t-. It’s difficult, because they’re, you have to, their amygdala is activated. You know, this, this fear and this anger is right there. So you have to-. They tell you to, give you hints on what you can do to get on safe ground. Something you have in common. And then get their Socratic thinking going by asking them questions, and that kind of thing.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Jen. So I’ve been speaking with Jen Senko. She is the filmmaker of “The Brainwashing of My Dad,” and she’s also working on a book, “The Brainwashing of the World.” Now, this is a very interesting film. We’ll provide a link below the player for you if you want to watch it, and we hope you do. Jen, I thank you so much for joining us today.
JEN SENKO: Thank you, and thanks for having me.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.