I probably would have missed this small story of an editorial page doing a valuable public service, so thanks to Mitch Harper for tweeting it to me (well, maybe it was a public service, and maybe it wasn't):
Rock superstar Mick Jagger says a newspaper editorial was responsible for helping him avoid prison for a minor drug offense in 1967.
The Rolling Stones frontman tells the Times of London on Saturday that he had been sentenced to three months in jail not because of the severity of his crime but because band members were being “scapegoats” by an older generation critical of their lifestyle.
The Times editorial underscored this point, saying Jagger should be treated “exactly the same as anyone else.”
The 73-year-old singer tells the newspaper “that editorial got me out jail. One day it dropped, and the next thing I was out.”
Jagger credits the editorial with telling the establishment “come on guys, this is just not English fair play kind of thing.”
I'm sure Mick Jagger would have survived three months in jail just fine — who knows, he probably would have even gotten some good songs out of it. But most people, Mick included, probably count a day not incarcerated as a good day, and it was pretty nice of him to give a shout out to the anonymous pompous jackass who wrote the editorial.
As an editorial writer, I've been called "that pompous jackass from The News-Sentinel" so often that I've come to think of it as my secret superhero name. There he goes, mild-mannered Leo Morris, always a kind word for everyone. "What's your opinion of the political climate today, Leo? What, you think that?!? Omigod, you're that Pompous Jackass from the News-Sentinel." Yes, I am, and my super power is insufferable arrogance.
OK, I'm kidding (a little) about the pompousness and arrogant jackassery. We editorial writers are, for the most part, an insecure bunch, always hoping the opinions we express make a difference in the world, however slight, and secretly fearing that they don't matter in the slightest to anybody. If Mick's small thank you gives the bloke at The Times a big head for an hour or two, I'm happy to let him relax and enjoy it before reality storms into his brain again.
Editorial writers have two sayings we like to use to describe our profession (if, indeed, that's what it is). I don't know where they came from, but they've been around forever.
The first one we actually enjoy, because it describes what we like to think about ourselves: An editorial writer is someone who rushes to the scene of an accident and shoots the survivors. That taps into our self-image as tough, analytic thinkers who can sort through the chaos around us and draw out the Big Picture. It's not that we're indifferent to human suffering. We just try to be above it all, looking down with perfect objectivity so we can finally declare What There Is To Be Learned From This Unfortunate Situation That Is To Be Greatly Deplored.
The second one we don't like so much, because it is uncomfortably closer to reality, so we only speak it in moments of self-deprecating humor, like when we're at a party valiantly trying to fit in with the amateur opinion givers. (It's like trying to stay safe on the road on New Year's Eve when all the amateur drunks are out.) Editorial writing is like wetting your pants in a blue serge suit. It gives you a nice warm feeling all over, and nobody notices.
Actually, that one can be sourced. It is attributed to William Ringle, a longtime Gannett newsman and foreign correspondent who died in 2011. It's a tough quip to make these days because before anybody can get it you have to explain to them what in the hell "serge" is. It is, listen up, children, "a type of twill fabric that has diagonal lines or ridges on both sides, made with a two-up, two-down weave." The blue variety is apparently very good at hiding accidental dampness, but let's just take their word on that.
In my long career of opinionating, I can actually think of a time or two when an editorial I wrote did make a difference in the real world. There was the looming City Council vote in Michigan City on an impending important issue that was deadlocked, and an editorial I wrote changed the mind of one council member, so the measure passed by one vote. There was the time here in Fort Wayne when one of my editorials got us picketed by a bunch of angry Vietnam veterans. There was the case of the state law and its history of being litigated that everyone seemed to be misunderstanding and misstating until I researched it. (This was in the pre-Internet days when it took more than a few Google clicks to find stuff out.) I know some people have decided for whom to vote after reading our election editorials, because they've told me so.
Mostly, though, those of us who write editorials just hope that now and again we can start a good healthy argument or two of the kind that can increase people's understanding of an issue, while elevating the debate to a higher level. We used to have to take this on faith. We'd write an editorial, then, several days later we'd publish letter-to-the-editor reaction to it (if there was, indeed reaction). It was sort of the slow-motion variety of interaction, just a bit speedier than the ancient Greek philosophers who mulled over each other's pronouncements for a century or two before deciding that, well, yes, maybe there are these tiny building blocks (that we shall call atoms) that make yo everything. (And of course there was always an Aristotle or two to poo-pooh the whole thing, causing hair pulling and navel gazing for another few centuries.)
These days, it's an uphill battle trying to keep the debate civil, let alone elevate it. New scandals come along every morning, only to disappear before the evening news, and for the brief moment they're on our minds we're supposed to 1) Explain why there is only one opinion about the scandal that is valid and that, 2) Anybody who holds a contrary opinion is a moron who should be tied up and put on the first plane out of the country. And the feedback section under the electronic version of the editorial will be filled with ill-informed screeds from the amateurs who no longer have to wait for a party to call me The News-Sentinel's Pompous Jackass, whose unbelievable stupidly is surpassed only by that of the other idiots daring to comment in this same space even though they have no idea what the hell they are talking about.
Oh, well. I don't let all this get me down. I still have the best job in the world. My bosses are still actually willing to pay me to shoot my mouth off, which means I get to inflict my opinions on everybody else, whether they want to hear them or not. Life is good.
And if there's an American Mick Jagger out there sitting in jail and just waiting for someone to drop the word in the right person's ear so you can get sprung, just hang in there. I'm sure somebody will come to somebody's attention.
If not, well, it will be an unfortunate situation much to be deplored from which I'm sure there is much we can all learn. Big Picture, Mick. Stay focused.