September 3 - 10, 1998
Porn stripped of its secretsOnline sleuth gets under skin of billion-dollar sex industry
"WHEN IT COMES to reaching into the bowels of fiction and piling on the manure," the op-ed bristled, "the site might best be described as a compost pile vying for the Pulitzer." This may sound like another old media tirade against the shallow ethics of Matt Drudge, but as it happens the assault was launched not by an editorialist at The New York Times or the Washington Post, but rather by an outraged journalist at Adult Video News, the porn industry's monthly paper of record. Just as traditional publishing has been revolutionized by the web-based Drudgeries of freelance gossip mavens, the porn industry has now attracted its own maverick troublemaker, and he has triggered a feud that -- measured by the sheer vitriol involved -- rivals anything brewing between Blumenthal and Drudge.
The figure at the center of this tempest is Luke Ford, the 32-year-old Los Angeles based freelance writer who has convincingly styled himself as the sex industry's version of Matt Drudge. Declaring himself to be the only serious journalist who makes covering porn peddlers his full-time beat, Ford runs weekly updates on his website on the state of America's most secretive billion-a-year business. Like Drudge, Ford positions himself as a renegade, shaking up the establishment of smut. Of course, we're talking about an industry where "the establishment" is Screw Magazine. There's something strangely inverted about the whole notion: how can you be a muckraker in a business that prides itself on being dirty?
"AIDS, blow jobs, celebrity porn, drugs..." reads the subject index at Luke Ford's gossip site. Whether you're looking for the latest dirt on your favorite starlets or just a glimpse into the pornography business, check out this Web page.
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IF DRUDGE HAS come to be known by his obsession with interns, Ford harbors a comparable fixation with the medical records of his subjects. Mixing gossip, inside information, profiles of adult performers and excerpts from a book he wrote on the history of pornography, Ford claims 50,000 hits to the site daily. But much of his reporting deals with the disease that originally shut down the swinging decade of porn's golden age.
During one of my conversations with Ford, he was trying to verify a tip that two leading ladies have tested positive for HIV. Uncertain he's got enough to go with the story, Ford works the phone and dispatches E-mail to his sources for confirmation. "Every other journalist covering this industry works for the industry -- whether it's for Hustler, Screw or Adult Video News, " Ford says. "I've been able to break stories that I wouldn't be able to break if I were working for the industry."
Which is why Ford tends to be disliked by people in the industry, many of whom see him as a loose cannon who dishes dirt and wrecks careers by "outing" HIV-positive performers. Bill Margold, a former actor in X-rated films and now the founder of Protecting Adult Welfare told the Online Journalism Review, "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."
Despite the howls of indignant flesh merchants, Ford is unrepentant. To hear him tell it, he's not simply reporting a good story, he's providing a public service too. If porn is a business that likes being dirty, Ford likes to think he's applying a little disinfectant. "If the person I'm writing about is taking intravenous drugs they are endangering the lives of others because IV drug use is a handy way to transmit HIV," says Ford. "If they're into beating up women that might be gossip, but if they're one of the male performers that use needles to shoot up their penis to get an erection, that's news."
Not that everything Ford writes about is life and death. The humor in the interviews with the porn-world's bit players can be slapstick and inane. Consider this excerpt from a recent column:
Bethany, 21, yo, stands 5'5, and approximately measures 36C-25-36. I can put my hands around her waist, which I do with great enthusiasm. We then recline on opposite ends of the couch in Reb's office. With her long red fingernails, Bethany hikes her dress up and down her soft pale thighs. She crosses and uncrosses her legs. She licks her lips. She looks at me and smiles... Bethany says she insists on condoms, but her determination wavers when various producers over the phone offer her and more to do condomless scenes.
Bethany's preference for condoms is part of a theory in porno that playing sex without latex is literally killing the business. Five porn stars have tested positive for HIV in the past six months. Several major production companies -- including VCA and Vivid -- have called for mandatory usage of condoms in their films. Until the recent outbreak of HIV performers, it was up to each sex star to undergo regular HIV testing. However some performers have faked their tests or simply not reported that they were HIV positive.
Depending on who's talking, Ford is widely credited or blamed for forcing the industry to move in a direction they have long resisted. Ford has published the names of those suspected or confirmed of being HIV positive. The dam broke when Ford reported on April 23 that Marc Wallice, a veteran of more than a thousand sex flicks had tested positive. Three days later Ford retracted the story. On April 28, Sharon Mitchell, a official of Protecting Adult Welfare (PAW) an adult industry advocacy group that monitors HIV testing confirmed Wallice was HIV-positive. No less than three women who have performed with Wallice have tested positive. PAW requires performers that test through them to sign release forms that allows PAW to notify porn producers of the actor's HIV status.
Ford says he tries to verify through his sources before he publishes the HIV status of a performer on his web page. He openly admits to being troubled by his rush to publish first. "I am having one of my passing bouts with humanity. No Scoop Luke right now. I must admit that a large part of me wants to be first with the story, and that sometimes the truth suffers in my rush."
Despite his pangs of guilt, Ford continues to slash and burn porn stars, publishing their real names and revealing their private quirks. Ford's casual proclivity to publish first, check the facts second demolishes his mea culpas. The fear of lawsuits is a threat that leaves him unfazed. Ford's banking on the idea that a person that performs sex acts for money and on film would have a tough time convincing a judge that their reputation has been smeared.
As for maintaining a professional distance from his subject, Ford says most of the time it's no problem; he's been on the beat for three years now, hanging out at film shoots and observing a numbing amount of copulation. He's a bit jaded by the all the open carnality and says he doesn't find most porn queens attractive. This, of course, is one problem Drudge doesn't have, assuming that Fox News star hasn't been making late-night forays to the maison Lewinsky. "I don't have a policy of not boinking someone in the industry, but I never make the first move," Ford says. "If I developed a reputation for that type of behavior, it would kill my sources.
DESPITE HIS CLAIMS of a rich news past with stints in radio, television and newspapers, much of Ford's writing would gag a Journalism 101 instructor. Acting as his own editor and fact -checker opens Ford up to criticism that he is simply running a vanity site. His stream-of-consciousness, third person narratives can be annoying and sloppy, lost in a smoggy haze of inane ramblings about his fondness for Taco Bell burritos and brain hiccups like "John's dog Cleo keeps biting people." It's the kind of prose style that makes Drudge start sounding like Walter Winchell after all.
Ford's probably on target when he claims he's hated for his exclusives. Just a few weeks ago, Ford re-posted a strangely rhetorical editorial from the Adult Video News that body-slammed the self-appointed muckraker. "A keyboard vigilante with a penchant for a hangin', Ford in my opinion, chooses to essay the role of some bow-wielding William Tell figure whose quest for truth and justice is achieved by methods best understood by the Ku Klux Klan. A British tabloid has nothing on Ford's style of reportage."
Ford's investigative journalist aspirations are not fully realized, but invective like this from AVN indicates he's getting there. Covering flesh merchants isn't a beat that future David Broders or Bob Woodwards dream about. And even if he does break a high-profile story in the sex industry, he's not likely to picked up by the networks for it. None of this seems to trouble Ford: porn is his niche and he's quite happy to have the exclusive franchise. As for the industry itself, it shouldn't protest too much. Do the producers of "The World's Biggest Anal Gangbang" or "White Trash Whore #5" really expect the mainstream to take them seriously and assign reporters to do in-depth pieces on, say, the rise of ATM (ass-to-mouth) scenes? Porn gets a Luke Ford because it deserves a Luke Ford.
Next year Ford plans the first in a series of porn industry tell-alls for Prometheus Books. His latest obsession: the mob's role in the sex business. According to Ford, the Clinton Administration has been quite good to the domestic sex merchants, with Janet Reno's Justice Department laying off the endless crusades launched by Ed Meese during the Reagan years. Ford can hardly wait to dig into organized crime's control of pornography. The threatening phone calls have already started coming in.
The article appeared originally in FEED, an online magazine at www.feedmag.com.
Created: December 12, 1998
Last modified: December 19, 1998
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