New Film asks, “What Happened to Our Media?”
March 25, 2016
No news to those of us who have been guerilla fighting against the vast right wing lie machine.
The rise of Trump would be impossible without the GOP’s alternative media-verse.
Documentarian Jen Senko never knew her father Frank to be a cigarette smoker — so it was a little stunning when she witnessed him walk up to a group of smokers sitting outside a family favorite restaurant, take a generous inhale of their second-hand smoke, and boast, “I love the smell of cigarette smoke!”
It may have had something to do with the fact that Rush Limbaugh — Dad’s “hero” — had been inveighing against the whole notion of harmful second-hand smoke, which he mocked as a liberal fantasy. Frank Senko wasn’t having any of that hokum.
This was also during the same period when he refused to wear seat belts (another Limbaugh scourge) and railed against “feminazis” — a period Senko described as “the height of his Limbaugh lunch days.” His daily habit of listening to Rush during his commute to work and at lunch, then at night via a portable radio, blossomed into a full-bore multi-media diet of right-wing news and commentary coming at him via Fox, talk radio, and a glut of email newsletters, which he forwarded to his increasingly disconcerted family. It was, Senko says “almost like he joined a cult or joined a new religion.”
UPDATE: Trevor Noah is relevant here:
Senko’s new film The Brainwashing of My Dad is about the media apparatus that, in her words, “changed a father and divided a nation.” It’s an inquiry into how her amicable, “Kennedy Democrat” father, who was never particularly strident in his political views, became unrecognizably, caustically partisan, as well as hateful, angry, and intolerant of basically anyone who wasn’t white, male, middle class, and straight.
Using her father’s transformation as a starting point, Senko, who also co-directed 2009’s The Vanishing City, began making the film three years ago. Brainwashing was funded in part by Kickstarter backers who recognized Senko’s alienation from her father in their own family. Some of these backers appear in the movie as talking heads punctuating the film with descriptions of their own similar experiences: a chorus of exasperated sons, daughters, siblings, husbands, wives estranged from relatives who consume right-wing media and seem to inhabit an entirely different reality. “It hit me,” Senko said, “this is a phenomenon.”
The personal stories come through loud and clear and are hard to argue with. Where I suspect the film will court objection is in its ambition to unravel the history of the “vast right-wing conspiracy.” (The film airs, and seeks to vindicate, those eternal words from the current Democratic frontrunner.)
The particulars may be familiar to anyone who has a passing interest in these matters or who watched Rob Greenwald‘s 2004 documentary Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism. In an economical 90 minutes, Senko deftly weaves her family history with an American cultural history — a five-decade saga of how establishment conservatives created a propaganda apparatus of think tanks, lobbying groups, publishing houses, and of course Fox News, with the goal — as articulated by Senko — of redirecting the “insecurity of aging white men” into righteous anger at social movements.
“A Plan for Putting the GOP on TV News” — a memo from the Nixon-era White House, which Gawker reported on in 2011 — is treated like a smoking gun. The memo’s authorship is unclear, but it comes riddled with handwritten notes by Nixon’s television consultant Roger Ailes, the master of the young medium who would go on to be CEO of Fox News. The memo reads in part:
Today television news is watched more often than people read newspapers, than people listen to the radio, than people read or gather any other form of communication. The reason: People are lazy. With television you just sit — watch — listen. The thinking is done for you.
Senko draws a straight line from the once-fringe ideology of the John Birch Society to the Tea Party currently championed by Fox and taking up residence in the Party of Lincoln. We are told that agendas are pieced together weekly from a patchwork of conservative interests at Grover Norquist’s Wednesday meetings. That buzzwords (like “death tax”) are incubated in Frank Luntz focus groups and grow up to become broadcasted relentlessly to inculcate popular support for elite opinions. That talking points from Ailes cascade from early-morning memos down to the primetime arias of Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.