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Nurture Your Reader

Posted on Thursday, May 31, 2018 at 12:24 PM

An important part of our job, caring and feeding our readers, becomes even more important in the aftermath of an error.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Several months ago, I wrote about the multi-tasked nature of editing a publication, tossing in that writers have their share of obligations, as well. In totality, the tasks came to center on the care and feeding of our readers.

Allow me to return to the subject, this time with a situation that I personally experienced. It has to do with a single error I committed and should have caught, that my editor might have caught, but that went uncorrected when the paper, the Bloomington Herald-Times, published it. I do not and cannot blame the situation on anyone save myself. Fortunately, the care and feeding of several readers was taken care of as best as possible, meaning in an OK manner but not as if I had initially been more careful and not allowed the error to be made.

I am writing this Editors Only piece in April of 2018, and the piece-with-error I submitted made the newspaper in early February. As many of you know, I cover classical music for the newspaper in the Indiana city named Bloomington, not the Illinois or Minnesota. This Bloomington is home for Indiana University, which has one of the great music schools in the world, resulting in an overly-rich banquet of events that get served to the public from the first to the last day of every year.

The Review

I'm just a freelancer for the paper. I've always had primary income from elsewhere, meaning my Herald-Times association has been on a part-time basis. But I've taken responsibility for covering somewhere between 100 and 150 musical events annually as reviewer, and I've also contributed a weekly Sunday column called Music Beat for about 34 years.

Well, in early February, as I said, I wrote a review of an IU Opera Theater production of Richard Strauss's strange concoction of an opera called "Ariadne auf Naxos," filled with lush music and built on a curious tale involving a show within a show. As usual, I worked hard on the review, read it over more than once, turned it in, and waited to see it in print.

The Error

It was printed. I skimmed the printed version. It looked fine. And then a letter arrived, via email, from a reader. The arts editor read it and sent it to me for comment and suggestions. I'm not passing along the letter author's name or my editor's; their identity has nothing to do with this column. But here the letter is, for your perusal:

"To whomever it may concern.

"I recently watched IU's production of 'Ariadne auf Naxos,' thrilled by the magnitude of the performance and the skill with which it was executed. Keen to read other reactions to the Jacobs School of Music's production, I came across the review by Peter Jacobi. Something that disappointed me is there is a glaring mistake. Mr. Tislam Swift is credited twice as a Harlequin, in place of Mr. NiZel Austin.

"A career in opera is a labor of love and a treacherous journey for recognition, one that is even worse for developing and young singers. The first time seeing your name in print is a monumental occurrence, held with pride and sincerity. NiZel Austin's Saturday night performance was worthy of such recognition. However, he was not credited and, even worse, was mistaken and had his work attributed to someone else.

"It is important to note that these two members of the cast are two of the few African American students in the Music Department at Indiana University. The pitfalls and roadblocks that African American and Black singers face in this industry is one of opera's great shames, and the fact that Mr. NiZel Austin was not recognized, or even worse could have been mistaken for someone due to racial bias on their similar skin tone, is something that cannot go unresolved. I believe it would be appropriate that a correction should be published. Yours sincerely."

The Apology

The paper quickly placed a simple correction. I added one to my next Sunday column: "I take full blame for allowing an error to mar my copy for the review of IU Opera Theater's 'Ariadne auf Naxos.' In discussing the second night cast of the production, I misread the two lengthy lists of performers being credited for portraying the opera's numerous roles. I praised both the Friday and Saturday foursomes playing the male contingents of the commedia dell'arte troupe, but I slipped up on one name credited in the Saturday performance. NiZel Austin played the part of the Harlequin. I credited another singer. That's very bad journalism, and I truly regret the error. My eyes simply gave way. NiZel Austin was the delightful presence on stage that evening. Please forgive me, Mr. Austin."

I went no further in that correction, deciding not to get into the racial inferences because of the complexity involved in such a charge and, in my case, the way-off-base of it. But I did write a letter to the complainant, considering the proper care and feeding of that reader and, probably, her friends. Here it is, in part:

"Dear Ms -----

"I cannot tell you how embarrassed and hurt I was to learn that I committed such a terrible, unforgivable error in my review of 'Ariadne auf Naxos.' Mistaking names is a journalistic sin, whether committed by error or for a reason. Let me assure you, as a practitioner and teacher of journalism, this error was not planned. It was, most definitely, an error, and one I regret very much….

"I did not, in my correction, allude to a possible racial reason for the mistake because that is so far away from being a factor and would, I think, have muddied the waters….Let me, first, explain that my participation in the arts, particularly music, is totally as a non-professional. It is not that I didn't have the desire to perform. I simply didn't have the talent for it, and this I knew very early from my piano lessons and my efforts to sing…So, I became an avid consumer from early childhood and have remained so ever since. I will be 88 next month….

"I have, as an outsider, understood (as much as an outsider can) the often crushing roadblocks artists must push away in their struggle to shape a career….

"Secondly, let me say, yes. I am a white male and, therefore, cannot put myself into the shoes of a person of color, male or female. But I firmly believe I am devoid of prejudice. Let me explain. I lived my first eight years in Nazi Germany, son of a Jewish mother and an extremely non-prejudicial Lutheran father who made the greatest effort to get his family out of the Germany of the 1930s. I was considered a mixed-blood, a half Jew. I was forced to go to public school where I underwent more than my share of contempt and abuse. I know what prejudice is.

"Not to belabor this, but I am prejudiced, as was my dear father, only against the prejudiced. I cannot understand prejudice. I cannot abide it. We do not choose where we are born or to whom. We do not choose our racial identity, our ethnicity, our sex, our economic status, our environment. It comes to us with our birth, and we must handle it the best way we personally can. Race does not come into my thinking process, except to feel joy and wonder when young artists manage to overcome hurdles because they so strongly believe in what they are doing. NiZel Austin deserves my blessing for his efforts. That I committed the factual error about him only makes me feel worse.

"Sorry to have gone on so long. I hadn't meant to. But please know that as I always do, I wrote my review with love in my heart for those who gave me an evening of satisfaction, one that I left with the same repetitive thought: 'Oh, I wish I could have been on that stage doing it!'"

The Lesson

And so on. I received a lovely letter accepting my regret and thanking me for my efforts to serve the arts in Bloomington.

I think that, more likely than not, a few unhappy readers came to understand the error. If so, it came because of needed care and feeding, an important part of our job, editor or writer.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063. <

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