Episode Summary

It’s well-known by now that disinformation media played a significant role in enabling the political rise of Donald Trump.

But the truth is that far right media has been misinforming Americans for many decades. Fake news was a long thing before Facebook and other words.

A lot of times, it’s hard for people who aren’t familiar with the topic to understand it in the broad sense, in terms of facts and figures and statistics. That’s why it can be useful often to look at an individual’s story and how disinformation has impacted individuals. And that’s why on today’s show, I am happy to be joined by Jen Senko.

She is the director, producer, and writer of The Brainwashing of My Dad, which started off as a documentary and is now a book that chronicles how far-right radio and television hosts manipulated her father into believing all sorts of false and hateful ideas. And she’s turned it into a book as well.

The video of our conversation is below. The transcript of the edited audio follows.


MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: I’m glad to have you here. Thanks for being here, Jen.

JEN SENKO: Thanks for having me.

SHEFFIELD: So as I said, you did a documentary about all this. What got you into the idea of making a film about your father and political radicalization?

SENKO: I had made a couple documentaries before because and I’m very curious about people and I think other people are curious about people as well. I was watching what happened to my father and it was like watching The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

I was thinking, this is remarkable. I should record this. It’s important. It’s probably going to be more important, as it did turn out to be in the future. And yeah, for a long time I wanted to do it. I was scared to at first because my dad was so volatile and angry that bringing up any subject that was remotely political was scary, but eventually I did do it, but yeah, I felt like what was happening to him, it was not quite a horror movie, but like a nightmare unfolding.

I felt like I could see what it could do to the country so I had to document this phenomenon.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And so had you had any prior knowledge or contact with far-right media before you started working on the document? Did you know who Rush Limbaugh was or Sean Hannity or any of these people?

SENKO: I didn’t know who Sean Hannity was. But I knew a little bit about Rush Limbaugh, because when I would play around with the dials, I would hear like Dr. Laura Schlesinger or I would hear a little bit of Rush Limbaugh, I just thought: ‘This is like a carnival barker, like a used car salesmen.’ They just sounded so mean.

And so I wouldn’t, I didn’t really give it more thought, I didn’t really listen that much more.

SHEFFIELD: Oh, okay. And I guess let’s maybe step back into the process. So your father was a, just semi political, not really into politics— lived in New Jersey. And not really into politics actually, if he had a political view, it was Democratic. But he got a job and had to drive a lot. And so he started listening to talk radio basically. Is that how it was?

SENKO: My dad was, since he and my mother both grew up during the Depression, they saw a marked difference once FDR was president, and all the remarkable changes he made. My father was first an FDR and then a Kennedy Democrat. And it seemed like in that period, like the fifties and the sixties, everybody was excited about the New Frontier, science, we’re going to make headway with disease, and we were going to go to the Moon.

There was just this positive forward-thinking movement, and everything that my dad, as a Democrat, was teaching me not to be prejudiced, and then we’re Catholic. So it was like, try and love everybody, except don’t be Protestant. And so I would say he was, a non-political Kennedy, FDR Democrat.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And so then he got a job where he had to drive a lot and started listening to radio.

SENKO: Right, right. So they were living in Maryland at the time. When my dad retired from the government, they moved to back to New Jersey, and that’s where he got a part-time job with a very long commute.

And so he thinking always, he always wanted to educate himself and, stimulate his mind. Instead of listening to music to keep himself company, he just found talk radio, assuming that it would be educational in some way or thought-provoking. And so that’s when he found Bob Grant who was called the father of conservative radio and he was one of the early radio hosts, full of hate.

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