Brad Watson, 2011, Mario Savio, 1964

And the Mario Savio “wake up America” award goes this year to Brad Watson, a reporter who had the audacity to ask Barack Obama why he was so unpopular in Texas. When the pharaoh unclipped his mic, he bruskly said to the reporter, “Let me finish my answers next time we do an interview, all right?”

The run-up to the 2008 election may in hindsight be seen as journalism’s darkest hour in recent times. But there was something happening in the global psyche then, evident in the giving of a Nobel Peace Prize to a president who had only been in office eight days. Even the recipient felt it was absurd. But he didn’t give it back.

More than anything, the world — including the networks — wanted this man to be president, and the price in journalistic integrity was high: Donald Trump harvests now from the fawning incompetence by again asking the questions that should have been fully answered the first time.

The Brad Watson moment brings a much-needed sea change to major media — meaning primarily the most pertinent to the zeitgeist, television — but the networks have quietly been in the works shifting their staffs already, removing the middling and the odious and returning to solid stock with Diane Sawyer at ABC, Scott Pelley at CBS and other ranking and top-notch professionals.

But the Brad Watson moment shows how fragile and electric our moment is. His criticism was so mild it could barely be called criticism. The president’s reaction was lurid; sort of frightening.

Instead of the glittery and institutionalized awards given to journalists nowadays, which since the concept of embedded journalism have brought about reinforcement of already calcified establishment norms, there might be a new Mario Savio award. Savio was a member of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement who jumped on the roof of a car and gave a speech that shook the world, and it didn’t stop shaking for 15 years.

"There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious — makes you so sick at heart — that you can't take part,” he said in 1964. “You can't even passively take part. And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all."

Now, that is excellent populist polemic. William Strauss and Neil Howe, the generational historians, make the claim that history and generations turn virtually in a moment, in an afternoon, and nothing is the same again. Savio’s blistering, elegant prose dissent came at a moment when the world was overripe for change; it was a dam waiting to break so the river could flow again. Our times are different times; the issues today are different, but the conditions are not so different.

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