(2015) Documentary (Gravitas) Matthew Modine (voice), Jen Senko, Claire Conner, David Brock, Craig Unger, Gabriel Sherman, Roger Ailes, Reese Schonfeld, Rick Perlstein, George Lakoff, Noam Chomsky, Thom Hartmann, Jeff Cohen, Thomas Medvetz, Steve Rendell, Edward S. Herman, Carol Wallin. Directed by Jen Senko
The phenomenon of right-wing media isn’t a new one, but in many ways it is at an apex currently. With Fox News being the dominant news channel in the United States, with Rush Limbaugh being one of the most popular radio personalities in the U.S. it’s a wonder that any liberals get elected at all.
Jen Senko noticed that her dad Frank, a World War II veteran and as a young man a Kennedy Democrat, was changing. He was getting more irritable and less tolerant of the opinions of other. He often sent profanity-laced messages to his wife when she’d disagree with his opinions online; he often denigrated the opinions of his own family and grew increasingly more xenophobic. What changed?
Senko, being a documentary filmmaker, thought the question was worth putting on celluloid. She places the blame squarely on Limbaugh, whose radio program her father began to listen to on his long commute from work, and on Fox News, which he often stayed up all night to watch. She feels very strongly that the messages sent out by FNC and right wing conservative talk radio actually changed the way her father thought.
She looks back at the history of mass media in this country and at one critical event; the dismantling of the Fairness Doctrine during the Reagan Administration, for example. The Fairness Doctrine required that holders of broadcast licenses present issues of public importance in a fair and balanced manner, and that an opposing viewpoint was given the opportunity to air. Under the guise that this violated the constitutional right to free speech, doctrine was abolished in 1987.
She also looks at Ailes, a media consultant under the Nixon Administration, and his determination to establish a right-wing presence in the media, which was perceived as being left-leaning. Under his direction, corporations and wealthy private citizens were encouraged to promote right wing agendas and influence institutions like the courts, higher education and media outlets. Ailes would go on to be hired by Rupert Murdoch to run his fledgling Fox News Channel, a position Ailes holds to this day.
Senko interviews a number of philosophers, media experts, linguists and grassroots activists who are out to stop the flow of misinformation and distortion they see flowing out of the right-wing media. Some of the information coming from these sources is eye-opening and thought-provoking. The more affecting moments in the film, however, come from family members who have similar stories to Senko about mainly fathers (and sometimes mothers) whose personalities changed after watching Fox News and listening to conservative talk radio, often parroting the intolerant views of Limbaugh and his ilk. These family members became suspicious and hostile towards anything non-white, non-Christian and of course, non-conservative.
Senko is an intelligent filmmaker who shows the progression of right wing media from its infancy to its current clout, and shows how the entire progression was orchestrated deliberately. Certainly it is impressive how well the architects of the current conservative media completed their mission not only to bring a right-wing voice to the media but to essentially drown out the left-wing voice.
Certainly there is a great deal of intelligence and thought behind this film and some of the conclusions that are reached are downright scary. However, I’m not 100% convinced that the change in the political landscape that we have seen is entirely due to “brainwashing.” While I would tend to agree that what is coming from Fox News, and other right wing commentators is essentially propaganda (and to be fair, left wingers are guilty of that as well), I can’t entirely agree that the process is brainwashing to the degree that the filmmakers claim. Some of the anger, the fear and the xenophobia that the right wing has played upon in its run to political dominance had to have been present all along, and that’s not really addressed. You can’t prey upon people’s fears if they aren’t already afraid.
Certainly this will be dismissed by those already leaning towards the red state of affairs; those who are diehard blue-staters will have their worst fears confirmed. The filmmakers make some very cogent points and I admire the way they break things down but I’m not entirely sure that they did all their homework. After all, there are no dissenting points of view here and isn’t that what the filmmakers are railing against?
REASONS TO GO: Thought-provoking and at times chilling. Will likely energize left-wingers.
REASONS TO STAY: Presents information in essentially a typical documentary style. Conclusions may overreach the facts.
FAMILY VALUES: Some challenging thematic material, and occasional bursts of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The animated sequences were provided by Bill Plympton.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Weapons of Mass Deception
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Hello, My Name is Doris