CounterSpin interview with Jen Senko on hate talk
Janine Jackson: The Brainwashing of My Dad, the 2015 film and the 2021 book based on it, are part family memoir, part historical excavation of the rise of right-wing media in the US, and part resource on ways we can resist its influence. Filmmaker, activist and author Jen Senko joins us now by phone from New Jersey. Welcome to CounterSpin, Jen Senko.
Jen Senko: Thanks for welcoming, Janine. It’s great to be with you.
JJ: I know that reactionary and hate-fueling media have been with us for a while, but reading the statements from the grandson of Andrew Lester, the 84-year-old white man who shot Black 16-year-old Ralph Yarl when the teenager simply rang his doorbell, the statements from the grandson that he and his grandfather used to be close, but that that unraveled as Lester, he said, “fell down the right-wing rabbit hole” and began watching “Fox News all day, every day, blaring in his living room.”
Kansas City Star (4/20/23)
Those statements really kind of squeezed my heart, because they took me back to when FAIR was doing work around Rush Limbaugh, and we would get these really plaintive phone calls from people, saying, I remember one, “My husband used to be so kind, and so openhearted, but then he started going out to the barn with his brother and listening to Rush Limbaugh.”
So besides memoir and historical analysis and ideas for fighting back, the film and the book are also a kind of communal release, a sharing of what had been a private lament of a lot of family of folks who had been lost to this sinkhole. For me, it gets a lot of power from that, I think.
JS: Reading about that really affected me. It also rang bells, of course, because back in the ’90s, I was watching my father sink down the rabbit hole. And what many people have a problem with is, they think that this media just attracts those who already have these beliefs, have these prejudices, have this hatred, have this racism. But I know for a fact that’s not necessarily true.
Jen Senko: “Many people…think that this media just attracts those who already have these beliefs, have these prejudices, have this hatred, have this racism. But I know for a fact that’s not necessarily true.”
I was growing up in the ’60s, and I remember at the time, everybody was super aware that, hey, we’re no longer racist. We’re open-minded. And then there was the hippies, and then everything was on the table, and it was pretty much everybody adopted that—I don’t want to call it an ideology, but the idea of openness and loving other people, no matter what they were or who they love.
And then, to experience my father’s personality change was just frightening. It was like watching The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And then around the same time he was changing, he would say these things, and I would have friends come out and say the same exact thing around the same time.
I’ll give you an example. One time I was visiting, and he said, “By the way, Jen, there’s no such thing as organic.” And I’m like, hmm, OK, where did that come from? And then a girlfriend of mine came up from Texas and we had lunch, and she said to me, “By the way, Jen, there’s no such thing as organic.” And I’m like, wait a minute….
So, yeah, that story about his grandfather, Andrew, who shot Yarl, was particularly upsetting. And I just think so many people are being, especially these older people, the last few years of their lives are being ruined. They’re miserable. They hate, they’re paranoid, they’re obsessed. They’re not enjoying themselves.
The grandson said the grandfather sat in his chair all day and just watched, I think it was mostly Fox, but the rabbit hole is the rabbit hole, no matter what entrance you take.
If I had any message for anybody, it would be that this media is potent, it’s powerful. It’s meant to change people, and it does change people.
JJ: And the film is of course about your dad, about Frank Senko, and listeners should know that story has a happy ending. But while it is your story, I’m just underscoring that I feel that you made it because you understood that it was not only your story. And at one point you say in the film, “I finally decided to make a film to figure it out,” which I think a lot of creative people will relate to. Let me make something about this so that I can kind of lay it out there and think about it, right?
The Brainwashing of My Dad (2016)
JS: Right. And in the process of making the film, I called it at that time a phenomenon, now I call it an epidemic, like I said in the film. Once I posted it on Kickstarter that I was doing this movie, I didn’t know where all these people came from or how they heard about it, but they contacted me.
And just over the years since the film, actually, the film was released in 2016, IMDB got it wrong.
JJ: Sorry about that.
JS: That’s okay. We were at Traverse City in 2015, and that’s how the date got in there. We did a work in progress; we showed that.
But yeah, so I’ve heard from thousands of people over the years about how their loved one, whoever it was, actually changed. And regarding my dad’s change back, I think that’s a really, really important note, that when I used to do interviews, I would leave it off, because I thought, well, I don’t want to spoil the movie for anybody. But there’s going to be people that are listening that aren’t going to see the movie.
The important thing to know is that my dad changed back to himself, and it was through removal of that media. Do you want me to….
JJ: Absolutely, absolutely. I think it’s a remarkable story, in a way.
JS: It is. And I laughed just because it makes me happy.
So my parents, in 2010, they moved to a senior community, and somewhere in the move, my dad’s radio broke, and he put it in the garage and it just sat there, and he didn’t fix it. So immediately he was sans his three-hour lunches with Rush Limbaugh.
Rush Limbaugh (cc photo: Nicolas Shayko/Wikimedia)
So he actually mellowed a little bit right away, and we didn’t want to remind him, you know, you got to fix your radio or whatever. So that was a really, really, really big, big thing. Probably, I’d say, maybe the first biggest thing.
Then the second thing that happened is, I guess it was a few months later, the TV in the kitchen that they watched during lunch was very old, and my mom got a new one, and she programmed the remotes, and they had stickies all over them, do this, do that, do this.
So my dad didn’t bother. He just left on what she had on, and I think she watched MSNBC or just different, various news shows. They always watched the news.
And then, might have been a year later, I’m not sure, sometime later, my dad went into the hospital for a kidney stone, and he was there for a week. And they had these really old computers, and my mom was afraid that the computers were getting clogged up, and she asked me to delete some of his email, but I said, look, they just keep coming. You have to unsubscribe them, and I don’t have time to do that.
So she did it, but she added something. She not only unsubscribed him from all this vile email from, I mean, dozens of hard-right Republican organizations. She subscribed him to what she was reading, independent, more progressive media emails like AlterNet, Reader Supported News, Truthout, that kind of thing.
And when he got back from the hospital, I don’t think he noticed. They were just political emails, and he was reading them. He had a little bit of both, whatever.
And then one day, it was after lunch, I think he had been watching Obama on the news. He said to my mom, “I like that guy. He’s pretty good.” And lo and behold, he ended up voting for him.
But OK, so the point isn’t that his politics became aligned with ours. The point was that my dad was free and happy and singing, and not angry and not hateful. And it was the last few years of his life, and we became really close, where it had really kind of damaged us and damaged relationships before. This media is so potent, as it’s meant to be.
JJ: Absolutely. Yeah. Well, longtime FAIR analyst Steve Rendall, along with FAIR founder Jeff Cohen, appears in this work. Steve is an expert in talk radio, and he would often describe its power as having to do with the way it was consumed, which I think your experience just underscores.
In the case of your father, he started listening on a long solo commute to work. For other folks, it’s going out to the barn with their brother. But it has to do with the way certain kinds of media, not just the way they talk to you, but the way they talk to you in a sort of isolated format.
And, yeah, this is where I think the book helps people see that this isn’t accidental, that the messages that were coming through, it wasn’t just your father, there was a game plan. It wasn’t an unintended effect. The effect that it had on your father, making him angry, making him hateful, and making him particularly hateful towards particular groups—all of that was intentional.
JS: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. Fan or not, Hillary Clinton, she was spot on in 1998 when she said there was a vast right-wing conspiracy. But the conspiracy wasn’t just against her husband. Basically, far-right libertarian Republicans, starting back in the ’50s, actually, after Brown v. Board of Education, figured out that in order to effect the change they wanted, which was basically one-party rule by billionaire white men, they would have to create distrust in mainstream media.
And one major way to do that was, they had to label it as “liberal.” And that changed a lot of things right there. It was a very successful campaign. Mainstream or corporate media fell right into the trap. They folded, they leaned right, they bent over backwards to not be labeled “liberal media.” And it’s stuck today. And it’s like they were abused spouses. “Sorry, what did we do wrong?” But they didn’t know that or understand that there was this plan.
So control over the media was an easy-peasy way to get ordinary citizens into voting against their own interests, and in line with billionaires. But eventually, of course, it metastasized to what it is today, like a weed that took over the whole garden.
But the plan, if you want me to go into some detail and mention some of the points….
JJ: Pick some highlights there. The book does go through a number of landmarks in the creation of this right-wing media machine. We’re talking about history here, and not guesses about things; these are things that are documented. But there are a few things that stand out as important in moving us toward the situation we have now.
JS: Right. So in 1969, after Goldwater lost to Johnson, Reed Irvine started AIM, Accuracy In Media, supposed media watchdog group. It was really more of a media attack dog group. They still exist today. But they were the ones that first took on this goal to discredit the media as liberal.
Interestingly enough, that same year, Roger Ailes, the creator of Fox, he was working with Nixon to improve his television image. And the following year, he submitted a memo to the White House which had a scheme to create a news show that would put the GOP in a good light. Later on, then, that came in handy when Rupert Murdoch hired him to create Fox.
But then the next year was the Lewis Powell memo. This was monumental, and it was secret at first, until a journalist discovered it, but nobody paid attention to it, because it was like Goebbels said about the big lie. You can’t believe that people would actually do this. But it basically outlined steps to take for the vast right-wing conspiracy.
It was designed as an anti–New Deal blueprint, to undo the New Deal and squelch all the social changes that were going on at the time. They were going to influence college campuses, the pulpits, the media, corporate influence over scientists, and to create and fund think tanks, basically, to push the free-market philosophy.
And then there was, in the ’80s, the creation of the CTN, which was Christian-based, and thus the marriage with Evangelicals happened. So the group got bigger.
Then Reagan made Rupert Murdoch a citizen, and he killed the Fairness Doctrine. And then the next year, after the Fairness Doctrine was killed, we had Rush Limbaugh go national, and he reigned for decades, poisoning the minds of, I think his total was like 20 million people, not to speak of they got him in the military, so poisoning their minds, too.
But then the final big blow came with Clinton and Gingrich and their Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996, which opened up media ownership and cross ownership. So all the big media companies got even bigger and squeezed out any independent ownership. And then after that, just eight months later, Fox News was hatched.
That’s it in a nutshell. I do go into a lot more detail in the book.
JJ: The book covers a lot of this history, and I just want to underscore: The book and the film are not negative. They’re colorful and engaging, and they’re forward-looking, which I think is maybe the most important thing.
And so maybe to bring us up now, I know a lot of listeners will be listening and thinking, oh, Fox fired Tucker Carlson, and so maybe that means things are going in a good direction. But you and I know that whatever Carlson was fired for, it wasn’t for years of sowing hatred against Black and brown people, it wasn’t years of punching down, because that has been his stock in trade for years.
So you also, and not alone, suggest that what we are learning around Fox‘s admissions, which are still coming out around the lawsuit, around Dominion and the voting machines, that ought to remind us that Fox is not caring about its own viewers, in the same way that it didn’t care about your dad, and that it doesn’t care about lots of other folks.
And I just want to say, a lot of folks are going to take that and say, well, I’ve done what I can do about Fox, because I don’t watch it, and that’s really all I can do. So what more can people do, besides being angry, besides being sad and bewildered by all of the things that this book and this movie talk about, what are some things that you think people could do?
JS: Well, first is to be aware of Rupert Murdoch, because before Tucker Carlson, there was Glenn Beck, then there was Bill O’Reilly and then there was Roger Ailes. OK, so he’s just going to hire somebody else that’s going to push forward his libertarian, “let’s turn people into Republicans so we can get tax cuts and deregulation for billionaires.” So Rupert Murdoch, mention him as often as you can, let people be aware.
Rupert Murdoch (cc photo: World Economic Forum)
So as far as Fox is concerned, I mean, there’s so much right-wing media. Fox is the tip of the iceberg, but it’s still a tip. It’s almost like if we can cut off its head, the head of the monster, that would be good.
But one thing that we must do, we all must do, we must work to get Fox off of military bases. I mean, come on. They say they want to get deradicalized, the military; they can’t be serious unless they get Fox off of the military. Every day, they’re radicalizing our men and women. I mean, January 6, a large percentage of those that were arrested January 6 were military or ex-military.
And one other thing about Fox: Do you know that you pay about $2 a month in your cable fee for Fox, whether you watch it or not?
JJ: That bundling packaging, where you’re paying for stuff that you don’t even watch, and that includes subsidizing Fox.
JS: And that’s how they make their money. Not so much ads, but you can petition your cable company to not pay Fox‘s cable fee. And right now they’re negotiating with cable companies for a higher fee, probably in order to compensate for the $787 million suit by Dominion they have to pay for—which, by the way, they can deduct part of that from their taxes as a cost of doing business.
But anyway, Media Matters has an easy NoFoxFee.com webpage. You can just click on one of their buttons. If you have Spectrum, or whatever you have, you can just click on a button and then send them a message, or they have the phone number there and you can call them. That should be easy enough to do, would take about five minutes, and it’ll make you feel really good if you do that.
And then support local journalism, and independent media like FAIR.
JJ: So there are resources, also, in the book for actions that folks can take, because it’s not a dispiriting book. It’s about things that we can do to resist what we acknowledge is a corrosive influence on our conversation, and on, as this story tells, our families and our relationships.
JS: I’ve done three documentaries, and I’ve watched hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of documentaries, and I was always pissed off when they would present all this negative stuff, and then just leave you with that. Like, don’t do that. Tell me what I can do. Or tell me what other people are doing, at least, so we don’t feel hopeless. That doesn’t motivate people.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with filmmaker, activist and author Jen Senko. You can learn more about the film and the book, out now from Sourcebooks, at TheBrainwashingOfMyDad.com. There’s lots of resources there, in terms of taking this conversation forward. Thank you so much, Jen Senko, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
JS: Thanks so much for having me on, Janine. This was great.
https://fair.org/home/this-media-is-mea ... d-it-does/
This piece is hopelessly biased towards the liberals: only diff between the end games of Conservatives and liberals is that the liberals envision a ruling class salted with some non-white, non-male faces(the better to support the facade of 'equality'. Conservatives could give a shit and point to Calvin). The propaganda onslaught we are experiencing from the Ukraine war says it all. While the specifics mentioned concerning the rise of right wing media are true the lack of 'balance' in these accusations reveals the partisan intent of this piece and Ms Senko in particular. The main contention, that media is meant to change your opinion, is absolutely true, but by not extending her analysis to the MSM she reveals her true intent.