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

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It started with a piece of advice, which “alludes to something so salacious, so depraved, so outrageous, that it seemed too good to be true.”

The tipping implicated an unconscious young woman, an influential dean of the University of Southern California medical school, and a drug-filled hotel room. A photographer passed the information on to Paul Pringle, a veteran investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Pringle was determined to unravel what happened that Friday afternoon at the Constance Hotel in Pasadena, northeast of Los Angeles. His quest turned into a fierce battle with his newspaper’s editors, city and police officials, and a top university.

In “Bad City: Peril and Power in the City of Angels,” Pringle offers a behind-the-scenes account of his efforts, along with four other reporters, to find out what happened to the young woman in the hotel room and bring a mighty man to justice. It also details two other scandals that have engulfed USC: a predatory second doctor and the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal. Ultimately, Pringle’s book is about a journalist on a crusade for justice.

The villains in Pringle’s book are real, but it’s not always clear if he knows who they are. He spends almost as much time writing about his conflicts with the top editors of the Los Angeles Times as he does with the doctors at the heart of the book: Carmen Puliafito, dean of the USC 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 Times reporters to win the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting in 2019 for stories about Tyndall — yet Pringle doesn’t address Tyndall until near the end of the book. Instead, he spends an inordinate amount of time in what feels like settling scores with the paper’s former editors: Davan Maharaj, then the paper’s publisher and editor, and Marc Duvoisin, then editor. He makes serious charges against them: he accuses them of delaying and downplaying stories that cast the university in a negative light.

A third former editor, Matthew Doig, then new investigative editor at The Times, also came under criticism. Pringle describes Doig as “more of 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, now in a similar role at USA Today, wrote a lengthy rebuttal on Medium in which he called Pringle a “fabulist who grossly misrepresents facts to support his false narrative.” Maharaj responded to the post, saying Doig had done a “great job of destroying the endless lies in ‘Bad City'”. they have been edited.

Duvoisin’s argument is worth considering given the seriousness of the allegations against the publishers. Investigative stories often go through multiple rounds of editing and rewriting. It’s not uncommon for editors to request more reporting or restructure a story. This process can be long and intense. This may involve conflicts. The result should be a better story, one that is backed by substantial evidence and can withstand public scrutiny.

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

Pringle has now written a response in which he claims that Doig only posted the drafts that made him look good. Yet many of the disputes that Pringle writes about simply feel like editing. Controversial, perhaps, but not proof that its publishers were trying to shield the university from damaging stories.

By the time the team set their sights on the Second Doctor, those editors were gone. The newspaper’s human resources department had opened an internal investigation after Pringle complained. The three editors were fired, along with other staff, as part of “significant management changes”. The investigation, however, cleared the editors of an improper relationship with USC.

What seems clear in all of 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 goes wild. In his rebuttal, he describes reporters on Puliafito’s story as “throwing a protracted tantrum.” And Pringle, even on his own, was consumed with anger.

This tit-for-tat villain dwarfs the book’s true villains. Pringle is at its best when focusing on 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 row with editors has overshadowed the vital work done by Times reporters.

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

Peril and Power in the City of Angels

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