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.”
Many Jewish leaders are disgusted by Ford. They say they have befriended him and been betrayed. Who knows what he might catch them saying, or what he might publish somebody else saying about them? Multiple rabbis contacted by The Journal declined to comment; not only that, they didn’t even want to be named as having declined comment.
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
|Brad adds (4:48 PM, 8/03/2007): As expected, Luke Ford has been blogging about this profile. To see the continuing dialog and some of my other musings on the cowboy blogger, visit The God Blog.|
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.