For anyone who has followed Internet journalism over the past year, his story is eerily familiar:
He is a boyish, self-taught, 32-year-old Web journalist who produces an eponymous one-man news and gossip Web site out of his low-rent bachelor bungalow south of Beverly Hills. He cheerily publishes unchecked and damaging gossip. He is attacked as irresponsible and threatened with lawsuits. Occasionally, he breaks legitimate stories that have a huge impact.
Meet Luke Ford, chronicler of the porn world.
Since February, Ford has broken stories revealing that four porn actresses and one porn actor had tested positive for HIV. The news dropped like a bomb in the Los Angeles region's multibillion-dollar porn industry, where AIDS is everyone's darkest fear. The report was picked up by Adult Video News (AVN), which led to a hastily arranged April meeting of more than 40 film producers, who made an unprecedented agreement to "encourage" the use of condoms on the sets of porn films.
"Luke Ford has been way out front with the HIV porn story," says Nick Ravo, a business writer at the New York Times, who occasionally writes freelance articles about the adult entertainment industry. "[He] is a quirky Matt Drudge character."
Sitting in a tiny, bedless, $400-a-month apartment with little more than a VCR and a floor covered with porn magazines and Jewish theology books, Ford welcomes the comparison.
"We are both eccentric. We're both breaking big stories," says the handsome, casually dressed Australian, speaking in a low tone. "But we've also both made serious mistakes. We both need to work harder on checking our sources. We're both dealing with a lot of gossip and sort of disreputable stuff, except that I cover porn."
Since starting www.lukeford.com in the summer of 1997, Ford has become the favorite whipping boy of the U.S. porn industry, a self-styled "family" of 500 or so performers, directors, producers, distributors, screenwriters and technicians concentrated almost exclusively in the San Fernando Valley. Ford breaks many of the secretive society's taboos: he posts stars' real names, he discusses the role of the "mafia," and he reveals who has had cosmetic surgery.
"The X-rated industry prefers to be a legendary milieu rather than a fact-oriented milieu," laments Bill "Papa Bear" Margold, a 52-year-old former actor who founded the Protecting Adult Welfare foundation, an industry support group with a 24-hour hotline.
A former reporter for the now defunct Santa Monica Outlook, Margold has become an informal industry spokesman.
"Luke Ford is a creation of his time. He's the journalistic suckerfish on the shark of X. We can't get rid of him, and he goes off and does whatever he wants," says Margold. "He's very interesting in a perverse way. But he's a lazy journalist and brings a lot a misery."
In May, for example, Ford brought misery upon retired porn actress Kaithlyn Ashley when he published an erroneous rumor that she was infected with HIV. Ford's friends, it turned out, had confused her name with a Hungarian HIV-positive actress, Caroline, whose real name is similar to Ashley's. Ford quickly printed a retraction.
A few weeks later, he reported that veteran actor Marc Wallice had tested positive and had likely spread the virus to three actresses, including Caroline. Wallice and industry professionals who monitor performers' HIV tests were furious, and they won a retraction. Then, just one week later, Wallice came up positive in a new test.
"Luke Ford is like a blind pig lost in the forest," Margold says. "The pig might find a lot of worms, poison ivy, but sometimes truffles, also. In the Marc Wallice breakout, he was lucky the rumors winded up being factual."
Tousling his teenage haircut, Ford defended posting the rumors without bothering to call Wallice. "I couldn't get a hold of him," he says. The positive test one week later, he says, was no coincidence.
"Give me a break," he squeaks. "Marc Wallice is known to have faked HIV test results two years ago. He has done gay porn and IV drugs. He was semi-blackballed by some producers in the industry for year. He might have been positive two years ago. It's not clear. When sources tipped me about his status, I knew I had news here."
Ford called his error about Kaithlyn Ashley "very embarrassing," but he claimed that the postings on HIV sparked an overwhelming demand for performers like Wallice to take a proper test. The result, says Ravo, has had a strong impact on the industry.
"If it hadn't been for Luke Ford, [this HIV outbreak] may have not gone public and could have been covered up," Ravo says. "I'm not sure AVN would have gone digging and published it."
AVN reporter Mark Kernes says his magazine considers Ford untrustworthy, and says it waited to publish the news about Wallice until "it would turn from rumor into fact."
Margold, whose foundation helps find health care coverage for performers, says the industry didn't need Ford to act against the spreading of AIDS.
"There's nothing we care about with more seriousness than the health and the lives of 'the kids' in the industry," he says. "Calling Luke Ford the Matt Drudge of porn is giving him way too much credit. The news spread perfectly without him."
Anyone familiar with the porn industry would raise an eyebrow at that assertion, considering the distorted quality of news in this rumor-fueled family of frequently bizarre characters. People traditionally stay informed through casting agencies, friends, or the grapevine, says Jeffrey J. Douglas, an attorney and executive director of the industry's trade association, the Free Speech Coalition.
"Internal information is informal; there is no Hollywood Reporter," says Douglas. AVN, Margold says, is widely seen more as "an advertising orifice" than as an information source.
"I definitely stumbled into a niche there," says Ford. "There was no one doing what I'm doing now, exploring this virgin territory."
As a child, Ford wanted to become a missionary. His father, a strict Seventh Day Adventist evangelist, was a controversial figure in Australia.
"Sexual sins were the biggest sins, therefore I was attracted and used pornography a lot as a teenager for blasphematory release," Ford recalls. When he moved to California in 1977, Ford started writing for his high-school paper, developing a taste for unearthing scandals such as favoritism on the football team. He later worked for the news department of KAHI/KHYL radio in Sacramento.
From ages 21-27, Ford was bedridden with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and as he began recovering, he converted to Judaism. Two years later, he moved to Los Angeles, and soon noticed he couldn't find investigative books about the porn industry.
Intrigued, Ford began doing research for his own book, which he says will be published by Prometheus next spring. The first editions of his crudely designed, mono-color Web site were fueled by leftovers from his research, which he supplemented with reports from film sets, gossip lifted from newsgroups, and essays on breast implants.
The site has links to Ford's other site, www.dennisprager.net, an unauthorized collection of information about the Jewish radio theologian. You can also click on titles such as "Girls" and "Cybererotica," which directly link to commercial porn sites.
"I don't like cheesy banners, I don't want naked girls on my site, so I have discreet links to my advertisers," Ford explains. "I know it's confusing but that's how I make my living."
He says he now makes about $3,000 a month, which will allow him to hire an assistant. He claims the site attracts 50,000 hits a day.
It is not a sophisticated site.
"In terms of design, it's certainly the worst site I've seen in the past three or four years," says Mike Godwin, counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet advocacy group. "It does make Matt Drudge look pretty good."
But Godwin is fascinated by Ford's pack-rat instincts of collecting every transcript of every tape-recorded conversation he has. 'It gives people from the industry and fans a sense of connection," he says.
Readers can feel like they are part of this strange world, and there is something human about how Ford will write about embarrassing situations, like when a beautiful actress vehemently refuses to accept his offer of a kosher cake, or when superagent Jim South tries to kick him out of his office.
"Unlike Matt Drudge, Ford lets people criticize him and posts the criticism on his site," Godwin notes. "No one else would probably do what he does with so much devotion and work… It's a labor of love."
But subjects of his articles don't paint so rosy a picture.
"Luke first seems extremely pleasant in person, but he has a gift to create controversy and bring out malice," says the Free Speech Coalition's Douglas.
"The bio he wrote on me has been exaggerated, taken out of context, and written in a tone to shock and appall the reader," says recently-retired porn actress Asia Carrera, who now makes her money running her own Web site. 'When he came to my house to interview me, he attacked my beliefs, and scoffed at the pain in my past, telling me I needed to 'get over it,' " she says. "Very sensitive journalistic professionalism there."
Brandy Alexandre, a former porn star who says she started the first porn news site in cyberspace in 1993, and whose site has been largely overshadowed by Ford's, says 90% of what Ford posts is erroneous.
"Luke Ford thinks he's more powerful than he really is," Alexandre says. "He can't write, he doesn't have good information. He's an evil little hack."
Adult screenwriter and journalist Martin Brimmer says he uses Ford's site for research and checks it regularly, but takes the information with a grain of salt.
"Luke Ford doesn't stop to apply editorial expertise," Brimmer stresses. "He needs to slow down in that respect. Ninety percent of his content is very good but he needs to corroborate his facts. And he needs to be more respectful towards people in the industry."
Douglas says Ford is not truly useful to the porn community. "Luke is obsessed with the industry, the Jews in the industry, the mafia, which is totally ridiculous, and he's hostile to most of the things he's obsessed with," he says.
"Ford is of no use to anyone," snaps Carrera. "Gossip is of no use to anyone. Ford never chooses to reveal anything positive or enlightening, or even anything remotely close to newsworthy. He's a failed author relegated to the level of yellow journalist."
(This reporter involuntarily experienced Ford's methods when he published an error-filled transcript of an informal conversation we had about the Eastern European porn industry. Ford sent his notes by e-mail and asked for clarifications, but only after he had already posted the imperfect notes on his site. He apologized and quickly retracted the transcript.)
Ford knows his methods make industry people shriek. He's not ashamed of not bothering to call the subject of a story, as in the Marc Wallice case. "People are not good sources on themselves, generally speaking," he retorts. "It's a business built on lies. Most people don't use their real names; this business has been illegal until recently and it's still semi-illegal. It's a business of hoods, gangsters, thugs, mafia, pimps and prostitutes, with few real offices or semi-offices. It's very difficult to nail down what is true and it's an endless task."
He says that when he eventually tracks down people and e-mails them his notes, they usually "go ballistic." "They start screaming that I'm publishing lies. But these people are used to being in their own little world; they are not used to dealing with real journalism," Ford says.
Ford is perfectly aware he causes pain, but only, he says, because he is "usually telling the truth."
"People insult me but they still talk to me," he says. "A lot of people have mixed feelings -- they hate me but they also respect me. Some think they'd better talk to me if they want to get their message out. They figure they can seduce me."
He says actors use his site to learn about directors they don't know. "They can check [a director's] profile on my site and learn if he has a bad reputation for writing bad checks or working for the mafia," he says.
Ford has yet to be served with court papers. "I get threats all the time, never taken into court yet," he says. "Each time I receive [lawsuit threats], I make a copy and paste it on the Web site, because they are so ludicrous."
His site is free for now, but will go to a subscription-based model some time this fall, says Ron Levy, manager of Voice Media, Inc., which has been Ford's main sponsor since January. "We'll add pictures and we'll revamp it," he says. "I think everybody in the industry would want to subscribe."
Ford says he is still ambivalent about his chosen profession, and is not always comfortable with how it has affected his life.
"Sometimes I think it's acceptable, sometimes disgusting. It costs me a lot of social stigma. I was turned out from my favorite synagogue, my family is furious, my friends too," he says. "I'm lucky I got the Sabbath: at least one day a week I don't touch the computer and I don't deal with porn."