Book review of ‘Bad City: Peril and Power in the City of Angels’ by Paul Pringle

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It started with a tip, one that “suggested something so depraved, so depraved, so outrageous that it seemed too good to be true.”

The tip involved an unconscious young woman, an influential dean of the University of Southern California medical school and a hotel room full of drugs. A photographer approached Paul Pringle, a veteran investigative reporter at the Los Angeles Times. Pringle was determined to find out what happened Friday afternoon at the Hotel Constance in Pasadena, northeast of Los Angeles. His quest turned into a bitter battle with the editors of his newspaper, city and police officials, and a prominent university.

In “Bad City: Peril and Power in the City of Angels,” Pringle offers a behind-the-scenes account of his efforts with four other reporters to uncover what happened to the young woman in the hotel room and bring a powerful man to justice. He also details two other scandals that engulfed USC: another predatory doctor and the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal. Ultimately, Pringle’s book is about a reporter who crusaded for justice.

The bad guys in Pringle’s book are real, but it’s not always clear whether he knows who they are. He spends almost as much time writing about his conflicts with top editors at the Los Angeles Times as he does with the doctors at the heart of the book: Carmen Puliafito, dean of USC’s medical school, who used and distributed drugs, and George Tyndall, a gynecologist at USC, who allegedly abused hundreds of young women over a period of nearly 30 years.

Pringle was one of three reporters at the Times to win the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for stories about Tyndall—yet Pringle doesn’t address Tyndall until almost the end of the book. Instead, he spends an inordinate amount of time on what feels like score, settling with the paper’s former top editors: Davan Maharaj, then the paper’s publisher and editor-in-chief, and Marc Duvoisin, then its managing editor. He makes serious accusations against them: He accuses them of delaying and trivializing stories that put the university in a negative light.

A third former editor, Matthew Doig, then the new investigations editor at the Times, also comes under fire. Pringle describes Doig as “more like an enforcer than a colleague” who was “quick to lash out when we disagreed with him.”

Maharaj, Duvoisin and Doig vehemently dispute the accuracy of Pringle’s account. Doig, who now has a similar role at USA Today, wrote a lengthy rebuttal on Medium, calling Pringle “a fabulist who grossly misrepresents the facts to support his false narrative.” Maharaj responded to the post, saying that Doig did an “excellent job of shooting down the endless lies in ‘Bad City’.” Duvoisin also posted on Facebook saying, “The reporters who worked on the story were never blocked; they were edited.”

Duvoisin’s point is worth considering given the seriousness of the allegations against the editors. Investigative stories often go through several rounds of editing and rewriting. It’s not unusual for editors to ask for more reporting or restructure a story. This process can be lengthy and intense. It may involve conflicts. The result should be a better story that relies on substantial evidence and can withstand public scrutiny.

The editors say this is the process they went through with Pringle and the other reporters. In his response, Doig posted one of the early drafts of the Puliafito story with his handwritten edits in red ink. He wrote that the “fastest way” to tell Pringle was “abusing the truth” was to compare the draft with the story that ran in the paper a few months later. There is no doubt that the published version is better.

Pringle has now written a response in which he claims Doig only released the drafts that made him look good. Yet many of the disputes Pringle writes about simply sound like editing. Controversial, perhaps, but not evidence that his editors were trying to protect the university from damaging stories.

By the time the team set their sights on the Second Doctor, these top editors were gone. The paper’s human resources department had begun an internal investigation after Pringle complained. The three editors were fired along with some other staff as part of “major management changes.” However, the investigation cleared the editors of any improper relationship with USC.

What seems clear in all this is that the newsroom was a toxic place to work, and some reporters didn’t like or trust the paper’s top editors. (Some reporters gathered for drinks after the editors were fired.) Doig does little to counter Pringle’s description of him as someone who lashes out. In his rebuttal, he describes the reporters on the Puliafito story as “throwing a protracted tantrum.” And Pringle was, even by his own account, consumed with anger.

This nasty tit-for-tat overshadows the book’s real villains. Pringle is at his best when he focuses on the doctors. The story of Tyndall, the gynecologist who abused patients for decades, is sickening. University officials ignored decades of complaints about Tyndall’s troubling behavior. More than 700 women eventually came forward to say they had been abused. Exposing Tyndall and the university’s complicity in protecting him is the best kind of investigative journalism.

It’s a shame that an exaggerated wrangle with editors has overshadowed the vital work done by Times reporters.

Cara Fitzpatrick is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who writes about education. She is working on a book about the history of school elections.

Danger and power in the city of angels

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