August 2, 2007
Interview with a serial blogger
Exclusive Web video: 'Luke Ford: Born to Blog' by Dennis Wilen
Luke Ford loves gossip.
He loves to dish dirt on rabbis suspected of sleeping around and on pornographers stealing from their customers.
The blogger likes playing the role of the outsider journalist, the little guy willing to fight back, more nimble than those dinosaurs we call newspapers. He is—to quote Luke Ford himself—“more a kid who likes to throw manure.”
The son of a Seventh-day Adventist evangelist, Ford is named after the gentile physician who wrote one of the Gospels and he shares his last name with one of the most infamously anti-Semitic Americans in history. But that’s not why mentioning the contentious Internet journalist, who converted to Judaism 15 years ago, gives some Jews the sensation of nails scraping across a chalkboard.
“He’s a lashon hara monger,” said one community leader, who like many agreed to speak only anonymously. “He comes up with the most outrageous conclusions and puts them up on his Web site, passing them off as truth. If a rabbi stands up on the pulpit and says something, by Saturday night it is on [Ford’s] Web site, twisted, with his perverted insights, as if it is fool-proof truth.”
But sometimes, Ford is right. And therein lies this tale: what happens when gossip, roundly despised in Jewish law and tradition, turns out to be true and important? What is the difference between making gossip and breaking news? And how, in the brave new world of blogging, do we answer these questions?
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa might be wondering the same thing. It was Luke Ford who on his blog broke the news that the mayor’s marriage had failed. Los Angeles has thousands upon thousands of niche bloggers, and Ford is nowhere near the most read. But he got the ball rolling, and he didn’t relent after Villaraigosa vehemently denied the claim.
Eventually, Ford’s reporting at LukeFord.net was vindicated, and the Villaraigosa revelation led to radio appearances and regular mentions on notable blogs like Slate.com’s Kausfiles and LAObserved.com. Last week, the Los Angeles Times invited Ford to debate blogging and journalism ethics with KTLA reporter Eric Spillman at LATimes.com.
“I’m 41 years old,” Ford said over coffee last week, “and it is just so obvious to me that the only thing I am good at is blogging…. As a blogger, I have to pick up the crap; I pick up the droppings that polite reporters don’t want to touch.”
LukeFord.net is now getting about 4,000 page views per day, according to Blogads, which tracks traffic for advertisement pricing. That’s double the eyeballs Ford attracted before the mayor confirmed in June that he and his wife had separated.
And Ford’s run is continuing: Last Friday he reported L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca was divorcing his wife; by Monday other media outlets had picked up on it.
But to Ford’s critics, the value of such scoops doesn’t justify the less savory aspects of blogging in general, and LukeFord.net specifically. After all, Ford has had a handful of breakthrough stories before, and then returned to obscurity.
“People who act that way can and do get lucky and therefore some credibility is given to them,” one Jewish critic said. “It’s like B.F. Skinner said about variable reinforcement schedule: If you don’t give the rat a pill every time they push the bar, but you give it every third time or every fifth time or at an interval, the rats keep pushing the bar like crazy. And that is what some of these blogs do.”
Few sins are as serious as that of lashon hara, the evil tongue, though the severity of gossip and negative speech wasn’t widely understood until Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan came along in the late 1800s and published his famous book, “Chofetz Chaim.”
There are 31 commandments regarding lashon hara. The gist is that it’s not only sinful to gossip about someone, but to say negative things at all, even if true, unless there is a compelling reason.
If a person knows their friend is getting involved romantically with a scoundrel or professionally with a crook, they should dish the dirt—privately, said Rabbi Avrohom Stulberger, a local Orthodox expert on lashon hara. That’s different from making a broad-brush PSA.
“When it is put out in the open like that on the Internet, it almost never becomes acceptable,” said Stulberger, principal of Valley Torah High School. “If there is a situation where you have factual clear knowledgeable information and you needed to warn a wide spectrum of people because you couldn’t get to everybody personally, I suppose there could be a scenario where it would be justified. But certainly if it is haphazard, if it isn’t researched properly, if you haven’t thought through the repercussions—there are so many variables that the Chofetz Chaim talks about, it would be a rare, rare day that something like that would be justified.”
Stulberger wasn’t familiar with LukeFord.net, but it’s hard to imagine the blog fitting the Chofetz Chaim criteria. Though the site is loaded with insightful interviews and
profiles of local and national Jewish leaders, the blog does little to distinguish between rumor and reportage.
“Whether blogging about Jews, porners, Australian fauna, my mental health, my dad Desmond and myriad topics, I’ve never been one to rigorously check my facts before posting,” Ford wrote in April. “And I’ve misused the English language quite regularly. The speed of the Internet doesn’t allow for fact checking or being clear when I write. I’m a blogger, mates, and I play by [my] own rules.”
The outcome is a mosaic of phone conversations, e-mails, reader comments, personal reflection, questions, opinion and fiction.
“Is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg Gay?” a July 10 headline asked. “His mannerisms scream gay to me but maybe he’s just a perfect gentleman,” Ford wrote.
That is not news reporting; it is Ford posting a question in hopes that it will lead him to the answer. (An Associated Press story Sunday about a sexual harassment lawsuit Bloomberg settled in 2000 with a female executive of his financial company ran on LukeFord.net under the headline, “Guess This Answers My Question About Mayor Bloomberg.”)
Ford argues that gossip is morally neutral. The benefits of gossip balance out the negatives, he says. But even Ford’s favorite Jewish journalist doesn’t agree with that.
“I looked up your Web site and have to admit to being troubled ... by the lashon harah aspect of your work,” Yossi Klein Halevi, a contributing editor to The New Republic and senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, wrote Ford in a July 2004 e-mail, quoted in Ford’s book “Yesterday’s News Tomorrow: Inside the World of Jewish Journalism.” “It’s not at all as straightforward as you put it—especially the notion midah k’neged midah [measure for measure], which is not in our hands but in God’s hands to do.”
To which Ford replied: “If we held by the Chofetz Chaim, most of your work, as well as mine, would be forbidden.”
Ford got his online start in 1997 after producing and directing an adult film, “What Women Want”—not to be confused with the Mel Gibson movie—and acting in a few pictures. (He says he never appeared naked or had sex on camera. Others confirmed this; I was not diligent enough to roll back the tapes.) He had just written “A History of X: 100 Years of Sex in Film,” and his curiosity about the business was at a high.
www.LukeFord.com (a porn blog he sold in 2001) broke the biggest crisis to rock the adult industry in years. HIV had infected five adult performers, and Ford was the only one pushing the story, naming “patient zero” and the infected actresses.
“People were saying, ‘He’s lying. He’s wrong. He can’t be trusted.’ And he was right. He was way out in front of everybody else on this HIV story,” said former New York Times reporter Nick Ravo, who turned to Ford as an industry insider.
Ford was not only ahead of the curve on the HIV story, but on the power of the Internet in general. Before newspapers began worrying about the coming circulation crisis, the Internet savvy of people like Ford was hastening it. With little training and even less money, Ford was uncovering stories about HIV, Mafia ties to the business and pay-for-porn scams with a cheap computer and an inquisitive mind.
His techniques were unorthodox, and not simply because he kept kosher and Shabbat while profiting from pornography. Trading in rumor and innuendo, lawsuits became part of the gig because he was willing to publish one-source stories and anonymous accusations as fact.
“There are three reasons why people come into the adult industry and two of them are wrong. The first is sex, which is mechanical, and the second is money, which is incidental. The primary reason is for the glory, and Luke has made himself glorious,” said Bill “Papa Bear” Margold, once dubbed “the renaissance man of porn” by Playboy. “He is the first site you go to see what is going on. Even if he doesn’t know what is going on, you go there to see that he doesn’t know what is going on.”
But his notoriety as an adult-industry blogger complicated Ford’s search for a spiritual home in Los Angeles’ Orthodox community. The first shul to give him the boot was Aish HaTorah in 1995 for being too antagonistic and again in 1998 when Rabbi Moshe Cohen discovered Ford’s double life as a porn journalist.
“He was one of the Torah weirdos,” said Rabbi Aryeh Markman, the shul’s executive director. “You get all sorts of people showing up in shul and we bust them. ‘I’m happy you’re looking for a place to daven. But this isn’t one of them.’ And you throw them out. ... The antithesis of Torah is porn.”
Ford journeyed down Pico Boulevard and created a new life for himself at Young Israel of Century City, going by his Hebrew name Levi Ben Avraham. He remained there for three years before being ousted.
About the same time, he was tossed from the Rabbinical Council of California’s conversion program for “deceit and deception,” administrator Rabbi Avrohom Union said. “Don’t take anything he says at face value.”
Ford sold LukeFord.com in 2001 for $25,000 and started his personal site, LukeFord.net. In 2004, he also returned to adult-industry blogging at www.LukeIsBack.com. Still, Ford has found a place to daven. The one condition for his cooperation on this article was that the shul not be named, although its identity is an open secret in the community.
Back in January, Tony Castro had a sexy story to sell: Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had stopped wearing his wedding ring and hadn’t been seen with his wife in months. Castro, a reporter for the L.A. Daily News, knew he’d hit gold. He dug deeper, verified what he’d heard and pitched it for page one. Only, his editors—who at the time also were my editors—weren’t buying it. They didn’t think the story qualified as much more than glorified gossip, even if it was about Los Angeles’ most vocal family man. The story appeared destined for a journalistic coma.
But on Jan. 29, while interviewing Ford for the Daily News’ series on porn in the Valley, Castro mentioned the mayor’s marital troubles. He knew Ford would get the story out. Before the phone conservation was over, Ford had posted this headline at LukeFord.net: “Antonio Villaraigosa’s Marriage Kaput.”
“The mayor and his wife Corina haven’t been seen together in public in about 10 months (since the president of Mexico, Vicente Fox, visited in May 2006),” Ford wrote. “Villaraigosa no longer wears his wedding band (not since the first week of September 2006). His wife does not live with him in the mayor’s mansion (I don’t think she’s ever lived there with him).”
This apparently prompted an L.A. Times reporter to pay an unexpected visited to the Getty House, the mayor’s official residence, and prod about the mayor’s nuptials. Villaraigosa was adamant that his marriage wasn’t over.
“Absolutely not true,” he said. “We are not separated.”
But then in June, something peculiar happened: Villaraigosa came clean. He and Corina were having serious problems and had separated. The next day, she filed for divorce.
Ford’s reporting was not only exonerated but exalted.
Previously, Ford’s non-porn reporting was most notable for his profiles of film producers and Jewish journalists and for publishing allegations of people who said they had been sexually harassed or assaulted by Jewish leaders.
Last year, Rabbi Aron Tendler, then the pulpit rabbi at Shaarey Zedek in Valley Village, stepped down after Ford and a few other blogs published accusations of inappropriate sexual relationships with women and girls at Yeshiva of Los Angeles (YULA), as a teacher and later principal there between 1980 and 1999.
UPDATED June 27:2008: A few years ago, Ford irritated administrators of American Jewish University, then known as University of Judaism, when he published pages upon pages of documents from a former rabbinic student’s lawsuits for assault, battery, negligence, sexual discrimination and retaliation. Ford interviewed the former student, Marsha Plafkin, and published the 39-page transcript of her accusations as fact. (The court ruled in AJU’s favor on the assault, battery and negligence lawsuit, and dismissed the second case without prejudice; university President Robert Wexler declined comment for this article.)
Ford has long been famous for two things: his spartan lifestyle and his propensity for turning gossip into news, thanks to the ever-present digital recorder he uses to capture scuttlebutt at journalism parties and porn functions.
“I didn’t realize just how irresponsible we normally are in everyday private conversations until I encountered L.A. blogger Luke Ford,” Mickey Kaus of Kausfiles wrote in a 2003 article for Slate.com titled “The Case Against Editors.” “Ford goes around to parties and immediately posts snatches of his conversations on the Web. His reporting is impeccable. He has faithfully quoted me libeling dozens of people on two separate occasions.”
Kaus, like most of Ford’s media connections, was a friend of National Review Online columnist Cathy Seipp. Ford repaid Seipp, who died in March, by eulogizing her on his blog as a “bulldozer” and an unrepentant adulteress who “had an unshakable belief in her own righteousness.”
It was classic Ford, throwing stones at the people who would save him from drowning, which is a tale he tells often about falling off a pier as a child after throwing rocks at his sister and she coming to his rescue.
He has no qualms with castigating those who have propped him up in life.
Ford credits his Jewish conversion to the wisdom of talk-radio host Dennis Prager, whom he heard speaking about Judaism when Ford was bed-ridden with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome after dropping out of UCLA. The two began talking regularly by phone, but then Ford bought the domain www.DennisPrager.net and used it to lambast the man he loved like a father. (That info has all been moved over to LukeFord.net.)
Prager has since completely distanced himself.
“He was neither a pupil nor a friend,” Prager said in a brief interview. “I think I appealed to something good in him at some point, and I hope I did. But I don’t know.”
While Seipp’s college-age daughter still converses with Ford and he says Kaddish for her every day at shul, most in that circle have written off their friendships with the blogger-without-boundaries.
“I’m barely even an armchair Ford watcher, but it seems like every time there’s a brouhaha like this (i.e., every month or so), the conversation turns to whether this time, this time!, he’s gone too far, whether it might finally, finally!, be time to write the Vulcan porn gossip out of polite society,” Tim Cavanaugh, Web opinion editor of the L.A. Times, wrote on the paper’s site. “I suspect the reason he always comes back can be found in this recent defense of a Seipp family enemy. If he were just some amoral jerk who constantly turned on his friends, they would drop him without further thought. But Ford always has some elaborately worked-out justification for doing the wrong thing—and even if the morality is understood only by Ford himself, there’s something compelling in the amount of thought and ethical self-torment that goes into the decision.”
Shortly before sundown last Thursday, Ford updates a story about an aide to Villaraigosa who’s leaving City Hall. He’s seated at his desk in his home south of Pico Boulevard. This is where he spends day and night, only leaving once or twice most days to walk to shul or to get some exercise. Three of four days, he says, he doesn’t leave the hood.
He lives in a guesthouse occupying half a converted garage. In a narrow room smaller than a college dorm, a few blankets—Ford’s bed—lay on the ground between his desk and the bathroom door, against which two white pillows rest. A bookshelf is lined with Judaica items and books on the Talmud, Jewish history and English literature; most of the books he reads come from the library.
There is a fridge and microwave; cassette tapes of recorded phone conversations are piled on the floor, a smorgasbord of bottled vitamins and medication cover a white dresser with gilded accents. “The Hovel,” as Ford endearingly refers to it, feels dank and smells worse, but for $600 a month, it’s home.
Ford posts the story, slips into the bathroom to wash his hands, then locks up and begins the half-mile schlep to shul.
“This is a good place,” an elderly man says to a teenage boy as Ford reads a Talmud commentary before a minyan has arrived. “You’re welcome here. You can come in the morning; you can come in the evening. You will feel good here.”
Certainly, that is true for Ford. This is the place that gives his life structure and purpose and stability. This is the only shul that’s let him continue davening there after discovering the depraved world within which he works. Judaism is not about a personal relationship with God, and without an accepting community there is no religious observance. For a convert like Ford, there is no Jewish identity absent Judaism.
“Orthodox Judaism in general, not just going to shul, gives me much needed structure,” Ford says after the service ended. “I have no core. I’m way too flexible on the things I do. This gives me some structure, and it’s important for me to bounce off the same people everyday…. It gives my life meaning, it gives my life rhythm, it gives my day a beginning and end. And it reminds me that there is a God.”
He returns home and hops in his van—a distinctly dented and rusted old GTE work van—and heads out to the Valley. He’s got a porn party to infiltrate.