Still more on the LA Times dispute

I hadn’t intended to post about the Los Angeles Times matter twice in one day. But Paul Farhi of The Washington Post has a strong article (free link), including what I believe is the first objective look at the various drafts of Paul Pringle’s story. Farhi writes:

The former Times editors shared two drafts of the story with The Post to bolster their case that it grew stronger with each round of editing. A draft from February 2017, for example, doesn’t mention a key figure in the story — a “girlfriend” of [former USC medical school dean Carmen] Puliafito’s who allegedly overdosed in a hotel room with him. Pringle subsequently tracked her down and interviewed her. The reporting team also later added descriptions of videos and photos in which she and the dean are seen using drugs.

These critical details were included in a version of the article that was written by early April. “The new reporting is tremendous,” [LA Times managing editor Marc] Duvoisin wrote to Grad on April 6 [2017]. But to Pringle’s irritation, Duvoisin and [assistant managing editor for investigations Matthew] Doig asked for more reporting, including about two figures who subsequently added eyewitness corroboration.

Earlier:

LA Times reporter slashes back in battle with his former editors

Los Angeles Times investigative reporter Paul Pringle has responded to an essay by Matthew Doig, a former Times editor who claims that Pringle falsely accused him and other top executives of slow-walking his reporting on a sex-and-drugs scandal at the University of Southern California so as not to offend an important advertiser and business partner.

Pringle made his accusations in his new book, “Bad City.” The dispute is pretty complex, so you might want to read this for background and then come back. The New York Times also has a good overview (free link). Here’s part of what Pringle has to say in a rebuttal that was published by Los Angeles Magazine:

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.

Maharaj was editor and publisher under the Times’ previous owner, the unfortunately named tronc; Duvoisin was managing editor, and Doig was assistant managing editor for investigations. Pringle also writes:

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.

Duvoisin wrote his own response to Pringle’s allegations that I missed earlier. Despite Pringle’s contention that Duvoisin overruled Doig, Duvoisin’s defense parallels Doig’s, calling Pringle’s claims “entirely false.” Duvoisin continues:

The USC story was not killed; it was sent back for more reporting, which improved it immeasurably, and it was published on the front page. The reporters who worked on the story were never blocked; they were edited. They did not fight against dark newsroom corruption; they were held to high standards — and resented it. They did not work in secret. They merely thought they were working in secret, which is kind of amusing when you think about it.

Similarly, Maharaj posted a comment to Doig’s essay that begins: “Matt [Doig] did an excellent job shooting down the endless falsehoods in ‘Bad City,’ which accuses me of ‘killing’ the initial story. That is not true.”

An explosive retort to a book about an alleged cover-up at the Los Angeles Times

Photo (cc) 2015 by Dan Kennedy

Earlier this month, The New York Times published a fascinating book review about a sex-and-drugs scandal at the University of Southern California — and about an alleged attempt by the top leadership at the Los Angeles Times to cover it up. I put the book, “Bad City,” by Paul Pringle, at the top of my reading list, thinking I might assign it to my media ethics students this fall.

Oh, but not so fast. Because one of the editors who handled the USC story, Matthew Doig, has written a retort on Medium. And believe me, you can tell he’s not worried about the possibility that Pringle will sue him. Among other things, Doig calls Pringle’s book “utter bullshit” and writes that “it’s disappointing that several media outlets have thus far failed to bring even a modicum of skepticism to such an absurd tale. The truth is that Pringle is a fabulist who is grossly misrepresenting the facts to support his false narrative.”

Whoa. To provide a bit of background, Pringle was part of a team of reporters who looked into the matter of Carmen Puliafito, the dean of USC’s Keck School of Medicine, who was video-recorded taking crystal meth and heroin with a group of young people and who turned a young woman into essentially his sex slave. This is pretty explosive stuff. In “Bad City,” Pringle claims that the LA Times’ leading executives, publisher and editor Davan Maharaj and managing editor Marc Duvoisin, tried to squash the story because USC was one of the paper’s most important advertisers. As NY Times reviewer Katie Benner puts it:

Pringle’s fast-paced book is a master class in investigative journalism, explaining how a reporter wrestles information and documents from reluctant sources and government officials. It is a stark look at the weakening of local news, especially at The Los Angeles Times.

I should add that this played out in 2016 and ’17, when the paper had been suffering from years of chaotic ownership. The billionaire surgeon Patrick Soon-Shiong bought the paper in 2018, bringing a measure of stability as well as some much needed financial resources.

According to Pringle, Maharaj and Duvoisin may have been forced out as a consequence of their bad behavior. Doig, the assistant managing editor for investigations, also departed. Although he’s not named in Benner’s review, he is identified in several excerpts from Pringle’s book that have been published elsewhere. Here’s what Doig has to say about how the USC story actually played out:

And on and on Doig goes, including a mind-boggling anecdote in which he claims that Pringle became enraged after Doig referred to a draft of his story as “good” rather than “great.”

So who’s telling the truth? I’m not going to touch that one, especially since I haven’t read the book. But it seems significant that Doig not only used what lawyers call “actionable” language in writing about Pringle but that he’s also landed on his feet — he’s now investigations editor at USA Today. Likewise, Duvoisin is now editor-in-chief of the San Antonio Express-News, which has done so much good work on the Uvalde massacre. Maharaj has had his own problems, but those appear to have nothing to do with his handling of the USC story.

One question that’s worth asking is what responsibility news organizations have in passing along accusations such as those leveled by Pringle in his book without doing any fact-checking of their own. Doig goes into some detail about that in his essay. Among other things, he laments the lack of fact-checking by the book’s publisher (welcome to the wonderful world of books) and writes that the NY Times should have done some reporting:

The New York Times wrote a cloying review of Pringle’s book that included a character assassination of Duvoisin and Maharaj (I wasn’t named in the review), but the reporter failed to contact Duvoisin and Maharaj for comment. When I emailed the reporter and her editor about it, the editor responded that it was a review, not a reported story, and that I should contact Pringle’s publisher.

I have to say that the NY Times editor is right. Reviews are not reported pieces, and it would be unheard-of for a reviewer to re-report the facts in a book they are reviewing.

So what’s next? Personally, I’ve crossed “Bad City” off my reading list and am not going to assign it to my students — though I may pull together some readings, including excerpts from “Bad City,” Benner’s review and, of course, Doig’s essay. I’m also interested to see whether the controversy dies down, or if instead there’s much more to come.

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