It’s something of a coincidence that as I was working on this piece, John Burns’ column on the CDC, helmet laws, Rob Dingman and the AMA broke last week. Some sort of synchronicity I suppose. It affirmed my belief in something positive I have witnessed here at MO for almost a year now. Namely, the powers that be at MO have an editorial vision that allows, encourages even, the editors and contributors to address contentious issues in their op/ed columns. There are no topics that are sacrosanct. I’m of the mind that discourse like this is good, unanimity is best left to Quaker meetings and jury verdicts. And so, onward and upward; there are always more dragons to slay and windmills to tilt at.
Back in the days of yore when print publications ruled the Earth, there existed these motorcycling monoliths called monthly magazines. At these magazines there slaved away a cadre of scribes, their job being to fill the white space of the empty pages such that advertisers would further feed the insatiable magazine (and magazine ad sales staff) yummy, yummy advertising dollars. The number of pages a magazine could run was directly related to the number of ads a magazine sold. No ads, no pages. No pages, no magazine. No magazine, no jobs.
Done properly this generates revenue, and a portion of any scraps left over at the end of every two weeks would be given to the scribes and those who oversaw their labors. Wash, rinse, and repeat the next month. We loved it because we knew on some level we had the best job in the world; it worked for all involved.
The warden at these fun houses was called the managing editor, the person charged with making sure the scribes fulfilled their monthly task in a timely fashion, and not do or say anything too crazed or lewd in the process. This process of ensuring that nothing completely off the hook made it into print was called, Adhering to the Editorial Tone. Sounds like something the US military would dream up. I always wondered why we couldn’t just call it what it was, “Don’t say any crazy shit and don’t get us sued,” but I digress.
Some magazines elsewhere exist almost solely to do nothing but publish crazy shit (see; motorcycling press – UK and Australian variations). The Aussies have, for example, a cartoon dog that is a K-9 hoon of the highest order, constantly lusting after voluptuous cartoon women when he’s not running from the cops or fighting Nazis, and saying things like, “I have a hair on me knob,” while he’s in the men’s room. That is their editorial tone, significantly more bawdy than their colonial compatriots. A tip of the hat to Fred Gassit and Australian Motorcycle News, by the way, where Fred has run rabid for decades. If you were to do that here in the States your managing editor would likely end up in a cardiac ward, and you would almost certainly be looking for a job in short order.
Here at MO you may have noticed that our editorial tone might be best described as … mmmm … casual, free spirited, springtime-fresh even. The guys higher up the food chain here tend to give a great deal of leeway to the ne’er-do-wells that push out the columns, road tests, and product reports. I suspect in part this is due to the freewheeling nature of the internet, and also the tone reflects the personalities of the people in charge here. This is a good thing for a number of reasons, not the least of which is I like it.
More importantly though strict adherence to the old-style editorial tone can at times prevent some of the best stories from ever seeing the light of day, or by extension place a gag order on the lumpenprols (i.e.; editorial staff) in regard to a story that would benefit the readers for fear of offending advertisers. Conversely, if you do nothing but turn out pabulum you will turn off readers. No readers, no advertisers. It is, in other words, a gentle balance. No guts, no glory, that’s what I always say. Perhaps a brief real world example might help explain what I am going on about here.
Once upon a time, I pitched a loud-pipes-save-lives story that never ran. It seemed a no-brainer to me. The idea came to me when I wandered back to the mailroom to drop something off and came across the AMA Pro guys arranging their equipment to leave for the track. I spotted two sound meters. For decades I’d listened to the arguments pro and con, “Loud pipes save lives.” You’d see it on stickers, t-shirts and belt buckles: if they hear us they will know we are there and not hit us. So went the rationale, anyway.
On the other side, you had an equally vocal group who saw no merit in that claim at all but asserted, and quite persuasively, that what loud pipes most assuredly do is annoy people and precipitate both municipal and residential bike bans, while opening the door to police harassment. I think the latter had been demonstrably proven. The authorities were not shy about telling you why they were instituting bike bans, noise was a chief complaint, but what about this saves lives stuff? Was there anything to it?
We had the sound meters, we had a good rapport with the local police department, and we had a large range of bikes to choose from running the gamut from box stock to fire breathing. We could replicate real world conditions; car windows up, car windows down, urban environments and intersections, and an interstate less than a couple miles away. Once and for all we could either debunk the old mantra that loud pipes promote conspicuity and, “save lives,” or show that it had some merit. But we didn’t.
So why didn’t we? Maybe my former boss and inveterate truth teller had the best answer of all:
“We’re the tightest assholes in the asshole business.”
– Bill Wood, Friend and Former (Barely) Managing Editor
I suspect the powers that be did not relish the prospect of being confronted with evidence that might contradict their stated policy on loud pipes, which after all were responsible for a good many bike bans and onerous noise regs in some locales. Bans and regulations that our Government Relations Department (GRD) was then tasked to reverse. Also my timing could not have been worse; the aftermarket (Yoshimura, Vance & Hines, et al) had embarked on a whole new line of slip-on pipes meant to boost performance and drop weight while keeping the exhaust note to manageable levels. Fair enough, these are weighty issues for those farther up the food chain, and they had decided that some questions were best left unanswered. It’s the old adage about never asking a question in a courtroom you don’t know the answer to or you might just get burned.
Just take a moment and think. What if we had done the leg work and run with the story? What if the claim that loud pipes save lives was debunked in its entirety, or if loud pipes did make a rider more conspicuous but only under certain limited circumstances? Knowing that, and being honest in reporting it, would not prevent anyone from continuing to insist that even in spite of the fact that loud pipes may save a life in certain limited circumstances, we know for a fact that they also lead to discriminatory bike bans, motorcycle-only checkpoints, and noise regs for everyone who rides a motorcycle regardless of their choice of exhaust. We also know that the majority of riders do not have loud pipes and that these bans, and checkpoints, and unenforceable noise regs are discriminatory and apply to all, whether a life is saved or not.
It’s an intellectually honest way to approach the issue, and honesty begets credibility, and credibility is essential to carrying the day in any argument, or committee hearing, or municipal town meeting, or court of law. In other words, there was no reason to fear the truth.
Which brings me back to John and his most recent column about mandatory helmet laws. I thought it was a valuable piece not for any overarching point that he made, or because I agreed or disagreed with him. What I found most heartening was that he could say it at all. I thought he did a great job presenting his viewpoint on a very contentious issue, and I thought it outstanding that MO had the cojones to run it. The merits of the piece can be discussed back and forth, and that is happening, you can just look at the feedback, all 50-plus at this point, and see that. I think that is valuable and all too rare.
As stated at the outset, unanimity is best left to Quaker meetings and jury verdicts. To get to the bottom of an issue, drag it out into the light of day and let the discussion begin. It worked for Socrates, well, right up until they killed him. Socrates was a smart guy; he never wrote a word. Plato took care of that drudgery for him, but he knew this, “I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.” Precisely, and op/ed’s like John’s do just that, we need more of them.
That will have to do for now, I have a response to Burns’ manifesto to work up.
Go in peace, look after each other, nobody else will, ride hard, and look where you want to go …
About the Author: Chris Kallfelz is an orphaned Irish Catholic German Jew from a broken home with distinctly Buddhist tendencies. He hasn’t got the sense God gave seafood. Nice women seem to like him on occasion, for which he is eternally thankful, and he wrecks cars, badly, which is why bikes make sense. He doesn’t wreck bikes, unless they are on a track in closed course competition, and then all bets are off. He can hold a reasonable dinner conversation, eats with his mouth closed, and quotes Blaise Pascal when he’s not trying to high-side something for a five-dollar trophy. He’s been educated everywhere, and can ride bikes, commercial airliners and main battle tanks.