The title makes it sound like maybe a horror comedy… but while there’s plenty scary here, none of it is funny. Award-winning documentarian Jen Senko noticed with sadness how her once kind, apolitical father, who never had a bad word to say about anyone, turned into an angry, hateful Republican rage monster once he started listening to talk radio (which, as we learn here, is almost 100 percent given over to right-wing hatemongers). So she set up a Kickstarter to fund a film to look into the rise of the right-wing media in the U.S., and had barely begun her crowdfunding campaign when she started hearing similar stories from lots of people who had seen the same transformation in their friends and family.
With that as her frame (and with those Kickstarter funds behind her), Senko explores how we ended up with the likes of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh setting the agenda for what passes for journalism in the United States. Brainwashing doesn’t break any new ground: from the roots of the present environment in the commie hunts of the 1950s, through Nixon’s successful “Southern Strategy” in the late 1960s and early 70s to engage the anger of poor white people, to the bipartisan cooperation in the 1990s that transformed American broadcasting from a public trust to a for-profit business and removed the barriers to corporate consolidation, nothing here will be shocking to anyone who has been paying attention… and who has been getting their news from independent sources. But it’s a smart, entertaining synthesis that will be useful to those just getting their feet wet, and as a tool, perhaps, for deprogramming adherents of Fox News.
“Brainwashing” isn’t too strong a term for what has happened to Senko’s father, as we see here, and neither is “deprogramming.” Interviews with lots of big intellectuals — Noam Chomsky is here of course — and former insiders of that “vast right-wing conspiracy” (as Hillary Clinton once correctly deemed it) shed much-needed light on how insidious the impact of our poisonous mediascape is. But it’s Senko’s father who is perhaps the most important character, as frail and as comparatively powerless as he appears to be. Because this is the year of Donald Trump running a campaign for President that is, in hindsight, the inevitable product of the festering demagoguery that Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and his ilk have been fostering for decades. And people like Senko’s father vote. I suspect The Brainwashing of My Dad is a bit too optimistic that there can be any mass countering of the right-wing media. It looks as if that, at best, it can happen only one-on-one. But at least that’s something.