Tikkun editor calls letter-writing policy a mistake

Tikkun magazine editor and publisher Michael Lerner is admitting the error of his ways following a recent disclosure that he pseudonymously wrote letters to his own magazine.

"It was a mistake and it won't be continued," Lerner said this week.

The mistake, Lerner said, was not that he wrote the letters himself, but that he did not identify the putative senders' names as pseudonyms.

However, Lerner defended his practice by saying he was merely taking positions that had been expressed to him by readers and formulating those opinions in letter form.

"I think that happens all the time," he said.

The matter came to light in the March issue of Harper's magazine. Chris Lehmann, assistant editor at Tikkun from 1990 to 1992, wrote in a letter to the magazine that Lerner composed pseudonymous letters to Tikkun "that held great praise for his own insight and vision."

The charge that Lerner penned fake missives has been reprinted in national newspapers, including the Washington Post and Philadelphia Inquirer.

In those stories and an interview this week, Lerner denied the charge that he concocted the letters to further his own agenda.

"I've never fabricated anything," Lerner said. "I have taken what other people said to me and written it for them when they were unable or unwilling to do it for themselves. If you want to encourage critical debate, you sometimes have to allow for anonymity."

For Lehmann, now an editor at Newsday on Long Island, anonymity is not the issue.

Lehmann told the Washington Post that the January-February 1991 issue of Tikkun, for example, contained a number of false missives including one beginning, "Your editorial stand on Iraq said publicly what many of us in the Israeli peace camp are feeling privately but dare not say."

Another began, "Have you gone off your rocker?"

Lehmann said that while working at Tikkun, he confronted Lerner about the magazine's epistolary practices on several occasions — but to little avail.

Alice Chasan, executive editor of the publication until recently, said she approached Lerner as well.

"The letter-writing issue was something I dealt with many times with Michael Lerner over the 4-1/2 years of my tenure there," said Chasan, now managing editor of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. "I considered it a matter of journalistic integrity to make sure that sort of thing did not happen."

The fact that it did happen is, in Lehmann's eyes, offensive to Tikkun readers.

"Michael has this elaborate story about how the tragically inarticulate Tikkun readership can't get it together to write their own letters," Lehmann said. "[That] strikes me as an insult to his readers, who I am sure are among the most educated in the country."

Lerner, however, maintains that many readers do not feel comfortable composing their own letters.

"Particularly when it comes to the academic world, people are reluctant to endanger their own academic careers by criticizing others who have status or power within their profession," he said. "This has also been the case with some rabbis, who we did some pseudonymous letters for."

Meanwhile, in the wake of the letter-writing brouhaha, the March-April issue of Tikkun contains a first-of-its-kind disclaimer on the letters-to-the-editor page.

"On some occasions, readers have approached a member of the staff with their perspective and we've written the letter for them," reads the blurb. "On other occasions, we allow the use of pseudonyms," which, according to Lerner, will be so identified in the future.

Lerner would not say precisely what spawned the new elucidation.

"It explicitly says what our policies are," Lerner said. "We just realized it was a mistake not to make it explicit beforehand."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.