I will admit that I listen to NPR and often refer to the main right wing cable news outlet as Faux News. Politically I lean pretty solidly to the left. So it doesn’t take much of an argument to convince me that the right wing media that have grown up over the last few decades aren’t always helpful in the discussions that need to be had on national levels. The Brainwashing of My Dad is a look at right wing media using her father as an example of how propaganda can change not only minds, but personality as well.
Filmmaker Jen Senko relates how her father, a fairly non-political, open-minded Kennedy Democrat quickly evolved into an angry, intolerant person after he had immersed himself in Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. When she started her Kickstarter campaign to fund this film, she heard from many others with similar stories—friends and loved ones who underwent drastic personality shifts under the influence of right wing media. She examines the growth of the media and the ways that it works to not only influence national politics but also, to use her terminology, to brainwash the public.
She spends the first two-thirds of the film chronicling the history of right wing media going back as far as the 1960s. It was then that the ground work was being laid for the rapid growth that would come decades later and continues today. The film then moves on to some of the mechanics and tactics of propaganda that are seen in the right wing media. About the last ten minutes is a bit of pushback, relating how some people have overcome the media brainwashing they have undergone.
It is fair to question the use of “brainwashing” as used in this film. By that Senko does not mean the kind of psychological torture such as that practiced by the North Koreans during the Korean War. Rather she references the way that the right wing media inundates those who watch and listen with messages that are specifically designed to enrage and feed fears and prejudices. And although it may not technically fit the term “brainwashing”, Senko shows the results to be an amazingly effective way of working not so much at the conscious level as in more primal, emotive ways.
While I am part of the choir this film preaches to (and it really is a film that will get little traction among the people she would like to reach), I think the film has some shortcomings even though it does have an important message. One of the deficiencies is a failure to note that there are those on the left (albeit not nearly as many) who do much the same thing. The rationale for having channels and commentators that skew left is their perception or claim that the rest of the media skew left. That may be a debatable claim, but it would aid the film’s argument to look at that issue to see if it is true. It should also be pointed out that this film uses some of the very technique that it points out in the right wing media. An example is that throughout the film, Senko sprinkles Skype interviews with some of those who responded to her Kickstarter campaign with their own stories. They are, in effect, her own chorus of voices in agreement, not unlike Russ Limbaugh’s dittoheads.
With an election upon us (and it feels like it’s already been upon us for a long time) it is worth thinking about the role the media play not only in the way we get our information, but also the way it molds that information and often does so in ways that we may not be conscious of. Whether we are on the right, left, somewhere in the middle, or on another plane, we need to be aware of the influences that play upon us.