Larry Rifkin, the Letters Editor of The Jerusalem Post, spoke at AACI Netanya. He studied journalism at the University of Connecticut and had a career in journalism, including stints at CBS News and elsewhere and after making aliyah he became Senior Editor of the Post. In addition to editing the Letters page, Larry also writes a fortnightly column under the name of “The Grumpy Old Man,” and has other functions at the Post, including “quality control.”
His talk was stimulating as well as informative. He said that he receives about 200 e-mail letters every day, that he can generally divide these into two groups, those that are unpublishable, either because they are defamatory and/or obscene, or because they are badly written or too long and rambling. The others he has to consider seriously for publication, but due to limited space he cannot of course print all of them. The criteria he uses to decide which ones to print are, are they relevant to a specific article that appeared in the Post or to a specific item that is in the news, or do they make an innovative argument or give a novel insight. He receives only a few written letters by snail mail, and those are usually from older people who don’t use e-mail.
When someone sends in a letter they receive a long e-mail in response that sets out the criteria that Larry uses. Most important is that letters must be concise, to the point and civil. In other words, “get in, make your points and get out.” It is not good to try to say too much in a letter, don’t think, well because I’m sending this I might as well add this other point. Keep it focussed and relevant. Also, as the only person in charge of the Letters page, Larry does not have the time to fact check everything. He does his best to try to confirm the identity of a writer and check any apparently controversial information. But, people who write letters and make claims and give opinions should realize that they and the paper that prints them are always open to being sued by someone who disagrees.
He read some letters as examples of the choices he has to make, for instance he may consider a letter that is angry and/or insulting as long as it does not use foul language and does not threaten anyone. He sometimes replies to letters he receives in order to give the writer an opportunity to amend one or two statements in his letter that are offensive. An example he gave would be to compare Israeli actions against the Palestinians to those of the Nazis against the Jews. This is unacceptable, but criticism of Israel and its government’s policies are legitimate. He is not an employee of the government and he tries to balance the letters he publishes, although usually the letters he receives from Anglo Israelis are all right-wing.
He quoted from a former editor that if a newspaper does not receive letters from its readers it is not doing its job. It is a sign of a healthy paper, and in fact it gives ordinary people the opportunity to be published next to the columns of well-known or famous experts. He once was the op-ed editor and he found the columnists to be mostly very egotistical. In that respect he prefers to deal with the letter writers, because they are often people like himself.