Exclusive: The Battle Over ‘Bad City’

Author Paul Pringle responds to attacks by former L.A. Times editors over his book’s account of their alleged attempts to water down his explosive story of scandal at USC

In June, Los Angeles published an excerpt from Bad City: Peril and Power in the City of Angeles, by Paul Pringle, an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times. In the book, Pringle chronicles what he characterizes as attempts by the paper’s top editors, Marc Duvoisin and Davan Maharaj, since fired, to initially kill and then delay and dilute his story involving the dean of the University of Southern California medical school (the story led to later reporting on USC that was awarded a Pulitzer.) Last week, Matthew Doig, another Times editor who worked on the story, posted on Medium an essay challenging Pringle’s reporting for the book. (Doig claims he encouraged Pringle and other reporters on the USC investigation to be more critical of faculty and officials, and that Duvoisin and Maharaj supported the more aggressive tone.) What follows is Pringle’s response to Doig’s Medium piece.

 My new book, Bad City: Peril and Power in the City of Angels, is about much bigger and more important things than the hurt feelings of three fired editors. But I’m obliged to respond to the public attacks on the book by those editors, especially because they also have maligned the character of my colleagues at the Los Angeles Times.

The Times fired Davan Maharaj, Marc Duvoisin and Matthew Doig after I and four other reporters complained about their handling of the story that is at the heart of Bad City—corruption at the University of Southern California. The firings came after an internal inquiry and were wildly popular in the Times‘ newsroom. After the editors were gone, the USC reporting team continued to produce one major story after another about the school, and three of us eventually won a Pulitzer Prize for that work.

The attacks on the book, me and my colleagues have come in a Medium post by Doig, which Maharaj and Duvoisin have endorsed, and a Facebook post by Duvoisin. They are riddled with falsehoods and do nothing to factually challenge the reporting in Bad City.

In the months leading up to the publication of the book, the three editors were given the opportunity to respond to the manuscript, including through an interview. They ultimately chose instead to retain attorneys to threaten lawsuits, with the clear intent of stopping publication of Bad City. Those threats similarly contained no factual challenges to my reporting.

Doig’s Medium post links to documents that make him look good but not to others that don’t, including his failed attempts to rewrite our drafts of the story, which focused on the drug-abusing and drug-trafficking dean of USC’s medical school. His rewrites were deemed unpublishable not just by the five reporters (we would have never put our bylines on them), but also by Duvoisin, who finally took the story away from him.

It is true that Doig had advocated in notes and emails to make the story, in his view, stronger. But that was early on. Later, as Duvoisin’s effort to delay and dilute the story intensified, Doig caved and backed his boss. Nothing in his Medium post— including what his supporters call “receipts”—refutes the fact that Doig and the other two editors sat on the USC story for months and, in the end, published a weaker version of it. Bad City is some 300 pages of receipts.

Doig supported Duvoisin when he stealthily deleted a whistleblower from the story—the person who called the office of USC’s president to report the circumstances surrounding a young woman’s overdose in the company of USC medical school dean Carmen Puliafito, and the resulting coverup. Doig and Duvoisin have cited the absence of a record of the whistleblower’s call as a problem for the story. The phone record was available from Day One, and I produced it within hours of Duvoisin’s request for it. And, as Bad City details, he only asked for it after we confronted him over his removal of the whistleblower.

I don’t know if Doig opposed the last-minute deletion of material that Puliafito provided drugs to the young people he was exploiting; if so, he never told the reporters that. The material had been in the draft for months—and it was cleared for publication by newsroom attorney Jeff Glasser. Maharaj and Duvoisin later ordered Glasser to go back into the story and come up with “the most conservative version possible.” Since the drug-trafficking material was most damaging to Puliafito and USC, it came out.

In his comment to Doig’s Medium piece, Maharaj compares the draft of the initial USC story—he abruptly killed it after four other editors (Duvoisin included) and Glasser approved it for publication—to the one that was finally published in July 2017, as if to suggest his actions had improved it. What he doesn’t do is post the draft we filed in March of that year, after we refused to let the killed story stay dead. Maharaj had nothing to do with the March draft, which should have been published with dispatch.

Bad City: Peril and Power in the City of Angeles (Celadon Books)

Bad City—which Doig says he won’t read, even as he attacks it—is not as hard on him as he suggests. For example, the book does not accuse him and the other editors, as he asserts, of being “willing to set our credibility on fire to protect” the L.A. Times Festival of Books at USC.

Doig also says he bolstered my Times story by asking me to obtain a copy of an illicit prescription Puliafito gave a teenager. I actually obtained the copy before Doig became involved in the story.

One of the ways Doig and Duvoisin softened the story was by deleting our reporting on young and troubled Hazel and Willy, pseudonyms I use for them in Bad City. This reporting delivered corroboration that Puliafito was leading a secret double life, and not just with the woman who overdosed—and for a much longer period than we thought. We reported that Puliafito regularly visited Hazel and Willy at a low-rent location an hour’s drive from his home, that he gave them at least $10,000 in “gifts,” and that she had a record for prostitution and Willy for violence. We thought readers would be interested in the high-powered dean’s relationship with the couple.

Doig’s allegation that Glasser criticized me in a meeting with him is ludicrous. In our many years working together, Glasser has regularly praised my performance to editors and others. When Duvoisin and Maharaj needed a reporter to investigate a sensitive case of alleged fabrication at the paper in 2015— the year before the USC story began—I was the one they chose.

And Doig’s account of my meeting with him is mostly a cartoonish invention. If it was a “job interview,” that is news to me five years on. The meeting went down just as I describe it in Bad City (and how I related it to my colleagues in real-time and documented it in contemporaneous notes), and it actually ended amicably.

I come back to Doig’s main line of attack. None of the edits to the draft we originally filed in March made the story stronger in any significant way over the three and half months it took to publish it, an unconscionable delay. If that draft had been published sometime in April, as it should have been, readers would have been given a story that was more complete, more hard-hitting and better written than the one that ran in July. Everything Doig asked for we provided promptly, even if we didn’t think it added much, if anything, to the story. None of it justified keeping the story out of the paper for months, while Puliafito continued to ply desperate and vulnerable young people with dangerous drugs and treat patients during the period he was abusing meth and heroin.

Maharaj, Duvoisin and Doig have tried to hide behind a boilerplate corporate statement that Tronc, then the owner of the Times, issued about their firings. They have claimed they were dismissed as a part of a “reorganization.” Well, that reorganization occurred on the Monday morning following the Friday evening conclusion of the internal investigation into their conduct. And as a reorganization, it was bizarrely asymmetrical in terms of who it targeted, particularly newcomer Doig.

The fired editors also point to Tronc statements that the investigation found no “conflict of interest” with USC and that they were not ousted “for cause.” First, the company did not need to find a conflict of interest to fire the editors for the many complaints lodged against them, including those about the interminable delays in publishing the story, which were a disservice to our readers. And the editors had no “just cause” protections against firings.

More to the point: Shortly after he was sacked, Duvoisin told a longtime friend, “Paul and Harriet got me fired.” Harriet Ryan is another reporter on the USC story. In an email to a Times writer, Doig, referring to the USC team, said of his firing, “the folks behind it got what they wanted.” Meanwhile, the Times’ human resources director Cindy Ballard, who oversaw the investigation, told me on the day of the firings, “We need more stories like the USC story.” She thanked me for instigating the inquiry into Doig, Duvoisin and Maharaj.

After the firings, our reporting took down Puliafito’s successor as dean and in time led us to USC campus gynecologist George Tyndall, who allegedly had sexually abused patients for decades. Ryan got a tip about Tyndall, and she, our colleague Matt Hamilton and I investigated. Our work resulted in Tyndall’s arrest, more than $1.1 billion in legal settlements, the downfall of Max Nikias as USC president, and the Pulitzer Prize.

The Tyndall story was at least as tough as the piece on Puliafito, and it was legally riskier. It was published three weeks after we filed it. Not after three and a half months (which doesn’t count the lapse of time since I filed the story that was killed), but three weeks.

Again, Bad City goes far beyond a newsroom battle to tell the bigger story of how institutions charged with protecting the most vulnerable often do the opposite, losing their way because of the interests of their flawed leaders.

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