How do we find out about hidden corruption in our society? Whether in politics, business, academia, medicine, or in the personal behavior of trusted individuals, it is often the dogged work of investigative reporters that exposes what malefactors try to keep from public view.
In recent years, for example, without such dedicated journalists there would have been no prosecution of Elizabeth Holmes or Harvey Weinstein.
But all too few reporters are looking at corruption on the state and local level. Why? Because it’s hard work, publishable results are never assured — and even your own bosses may turn against you.
That’s the contention of the first of our two guests on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast — Paul Pringle, a long-time Los Angeles Times investigative reporter who has won three Pulitzer Prizes. Our second guest, who has a different take on what happened, is Matthew Doig, currently the network investigations editor at USA Today and formerly the associate managing editor for investigations at the LA Times.
Pringle, the author of Bad City: Peril and Power in the City of Angeles, was the first to uncover widespread sexual abuse by Dr. George Tyndall at the University of Southern California (USC). That exposé grew out of his reporting the year before on the drugged and sexually abusive behavior of Dr. Carmen Puliafito, then the dean of USC’s medical school.
As Pringle tells it, his highly disturbing revelations about the entrenched corruption at USC ran into unnecessary friction from his own editors and bosses at the Times.
In this week’s podcast we first listen to Pringle tell his version of the story. Then we hear Doig counter some of Pringle’s key assertions.
Their versions of events do not line up. You get to be the judge of whose story is true.
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Full Text Transcript (1 of 2 Getting at the Truth: Two Perspectives):
(As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.)
Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. How do we find out about most of the evils of corruption in our society, in politics, in business, and in personal behavior of trusted individuals? The answer usually is not from district attorneys or congressional committees but from the media. It’s through the dogged work of investigative reporters that so much of our contemporary tableau of corruption ultimately comes to light.
In recent times, without these reporters, there would’ve been no prosecution of Elizabeth Holmes or even Harvey Weinstein. In fact, with respect to Weinstein, if NBC News had not pulled back Ronan Farrow’s early reporting on Weinstein, some of his victims might have been spared. In Los Angeles, like any other big city, there are many institutions that are monolithic, longstanding, and have the potential for corruption at worst and secrecy at best.
In Los Angeles, two of those institutions have been the Los Angeles Times and the University of Southern California. Both of them came together as part of a story unearthed, written, challenged, and finally reported by my guest, Paul Pringle, and finally published by the LA Times. Paul Pringle is a longtime Los Angeles Times investigative reporter. He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2009 and a member of reporting teams that won Pulitzers in 2004 and 2011.
In 2019, he and two colleagues won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for their work on covering the widespread sexual abuse of Dr. George Tindall at the University of Southern California. That inquiry, critical as it was, grew out of his reporting the year before on Dr. Carmen Puliafito, the dean of USC’s medical school. It’s a story that altered the tectonic plates of both the LA Times and USC.
Pringle tells that story in his new book, Bad City: Peril and Power in the City of Angels, and it is my pleasure to welcome Paul Pringle here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Paul, thanks so much for joining us.
Paul Pringle: Thanks very much for having me.
Jeff: Well, it’s a delight to have you here. Before we get into the details of this story, talk in a general sense about why you think investigative reporting, investigative journalism is so important today.
Paul: Far too often, the only place people can turn for justice often is investigative journalism after they’ve tried everything else. As I lay out in the story in Bad City, they try the police, they try the district attorney’s office, they try whatever company they’re working for and they get nowhere. And if it isn’t for investigative journalism, justice is never delivered to them.
Jeff: This story started out as a random tip, the kind of things that journalists in general and investigative journalists, in particular, long for, but from that one tip, a whole story grew. Talk about how it began.
Paul: Yes, it started with a tip. And again, it was a case of a courageous whistleblower who had tried everything else. He had called the police about this overdose that occurred in Pasadena involving the dean of the medical school at USC. The police didn’t arrest him, didn’t even file a report, and from there, he contacted the city attorney’s office, he contacted USC itself.
And he was just about giving up when he just happened to bump into a colleague of mine at a social gathering. And through that meeting, I got the tip and that led to— I immediately encountered massive coverups at the Pasadena Police Department and USC, and it went on from there. And I just had to keep knocking on doors and pursuing leads until I finally got some daylight on the story.
Jeff: And one of the things that you knew was that there was a long history, first of all, of USC covering up things in Los Angeles, some of them major, some of them minor, but it was always their first line of defense.
Paul: Yes. In my dealings with USC going back many years, the administration, and I want to emphasize, I’m talking about the leadership at USC, not the folks in the classrooms, in the laboratories, it’s the leadership, the people who run the institution. In my experience, transparency was never their first response to any kind of inquiry that they thought might be embarrassing, something they would have to address. And that went on for many years across the university, sports department, elsewhere, and the same occurred in this case.
Jeff: Once you got the tip, once you got the information, talk a little bit about how you began to investigate the story.
Paul: Well, initially, you have to make the whistleblower comfortable. You have to earn the whistleblower’s trust. So that’s step number one and I managed to pull that off. And then I went down to the police department and I walked into the police station to try to get what should have been very basic information on this incident, which was an overdose at a local hotel, an overdose of a young woman in the hotel room of this much older man who was the dean of the medical school.
And I immediately got the brush off. All I was given was this report was as basically a call log of a 911 call which was heavily redacted, no names in it. Later on, the police department wouldn’t even decode for me the abbreviations in the call log. And that was it. The police department spokeswoman wasn’t very helpful. I went to the fire department to at least inquire about the 911 call and I basically left with nothing.
So, I just kept, again, knocking on doors, trying to find out who handled the call, tried to find the police officer who reported to the scene, and this went on for quite some time. In the meantime, I was also filing a request under California’s Public Records Act. And again, had very little luck with that. Again, this went on for many months. And at the same time, USC was not even acknowledging my request for information, wouldn’t even acknowledge that I sent them an email or made a phone call.
Jeff: How unusual was the kind of behavior you encountered from the Pasadena police and the fire department?
Paul: It was very unusual, it’s not supposed to happen. What I was asking for should be public record. And in the end, because I kept persisting, they actually created a police report. I believe it was three months after the incident occurred, so they had a retroactive police report on this overdose. I had never heard of anything like that in my career. And after that occurred, it still took them nearly two months to give it to me despite my persistent request going back again and again.
So yes, that was extremely unusual. Now, eventually, again, because I kept persisting, they turned over the recordings of two 911 calls over the overdose. And that helped me piece things together, along with the police report they finally released, to place the dean at the scene of the overdose conclusively. I had no doubt he was there because the whistleblower was so exact in his recounting of events, but this was solid confirmation so then I was prepared to write the first story.
Jeff: Talk about what you discovered in terms of this not being an isolated incident but really what the story was with respect to the dean of the medical school. This wasn’t one guy engaging in bad behavior at one particular moment, that there was a much larger history here.
Paul: Yes, eventually, that came out as I continued to pursue the story, which my initial story was killed by the top editor at the paper. And after that, my immediate editor and I, with the support of the California editor, my editor’s supervisor, we put together a larger team of reporters to continue to pursue the story. And we did, we nailed it. I got videos and photos showing that this dean was, in fact, a user of drugs and a supplier of drugs to a circle of young people. And further down the road, this story, as you mentioned in your introduction, led to the discovery of the gynecologist who had allegedly been abusing his patients on campus for decades.
Jeff: Explain to us why the initial story that you refer to was buried.
Paul: Well, the initial story was very straightforward. It was based mostly on public records, again, the 911 call, the police report, the call log, statements from the spokesperson for the police department, the whistleblower’s account. It had been thoroughly edited. It had passed the legal review by the newsroom attorney, and at the last moment, it was killed by the top editor.
Jeff: What was your reaction to that at the time?
Paul: My reaction was anger, outrage, and that was the same reaction that my editor had and others in the newsroom, and we wouldn’t let it die.
Jeff: Did you have a sense of why it was spiked at that point?
Paul: Some things happened before it was killed. For example, the management of the paper tried to stop me from going to the house, the mansion, USC presidential mansion, where the president of the university lived. He would not respond to any inquiries I made about this, so a routine thing to do as a journalist, of course, is to go to someone’s house, knock on the door and see if they’ll talk there. Sometimes people are more comfortable talking at home as opposed to the workplace.
Sometimes when you show up at the doorstep, they realize you’re serious, you’re not going to go away so, it’s better to talk. Well, this managing editor just tried to stop me from doing that. And that, again, was the first of my career. He’s supposed to be doing the opposite and encouraging me to go. So, that heightened my concerns about how this story was being treated differently.
And that takes us to the fact that there were ties between USC and the LA Times, long-standing ties. People routinely left the LA Times to work at USC. The LA Times book festival was held at the campus of USC. USC was an advertiser. So, these were all things that were in the back of my mind and the mind of my colleagues as we tried to get this story published.
Jeff: Did it mitigate against this idea that the paper had, from time to time, done stories that were negative towards USC, including a series of stories a number of years before about the athletic department that you referred to before? I mean, there had been some cases where the paper did do stories about USC.
Paul: Yes, there had. It might be known I’m speaking about my own experience.
Paul: They are always very difficult to get into the paper. They always went through extraordinary rounds of editing and scrutiny, in comparison to stories about other institutions. And that’s what I experienced personally.
Jeff: The fact that they was push back initially, did that help the story in any way? Did that help you in any way? Was there a potential net gain from this because of the pushback and the additional work that was done to uncover more and more pieces of this story?
Paul: No, there wasn’t because in a case like this you publish what you have. When you’ve nailed something, you publish it. And when you publish it, other information comes in. As I learned from the family at the center of this story, if that story had been published, they would have contacted me immediately. But because the story wasn’t published, we now had to depend on not just hard work but luck to try to get something that the editors could not keep out of the paper. And that’s what occurred. And it took several weeks, months, for me to get enough information to make the story unkillable. And that should not have happened.
Jeff: But as time went by, as a result, did the story become stronger? Were there more details?
Paul: But the story did become better. So, again, we put together this team and we worked in secret from our top editors. Again, a first in all of our careers. Because we were concerned that if the top editors knew about this, they’d put a stop to it. So, we fanned out across LA. We tried to find anyone who could help us get information to make the story unkillable.
I keep coming back to that because you shouldn’t have to worry about whether a story is killable. You should be confident that your editors are going to give you all the support you need to get the best story published, but that wasn’t happening in this case. So, we fanned out across LA. We’re knocking on doors, making phone calls, and I just happened to find, finally, the young woman who was the victim of the overdose.
I did this through scouring public records, which I’ve been doing for quite some time and just had no luck. But finally, a record surfaced that connected her to the dean. It was some sort of property record. So, through that and through searching social media, I was able to track her down, and then all of us concentrated on that. We were able to find her family, others connected to her through things like the court records, because she had a record.
And, eventually, I was able to persuade the family to turn over to me photos and videos of the dean doing drugs with a circle of young people to whom he was providing drugs. So, at that point, you can’t kill the story. But instead of getting into the paper promptly after the normal editing and legal reviews, the editor sat on it for three and a half months. And all this time, this dean is continuing to abuse drugs himself, and he’s a practicing doctor, he’s an eye surgeon, and to provide drugs to these young people.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about your conversations with Sarah Warren, the principal victim that kicked all of this off, as well as your conversations with the Warren family. And what was that like?
Paul: It was very difficult for them, of course. Again, it was a matter of me having to earn their trust, that I was going to treat their information with respect, with honesty, and that took some time. That took a lot of time. And they were very brave in coming forward. Again, they had tried everything. They also had gone to the police more than once. They hired a private detective to try to help them rescue their daughter from this dean and nothing worked. So, they were at the end of their rope, and they were looking for help. And my colleagues and I were finally able to provide it to them, but it took a lot of courage on their part to come forward.
Jeff: Had they tried to contact USC directly?
Paul: I don’t think so. I don’t think that ever happened. They were dealing directly with the dean. They were afraid of him. He was wealthy. He was influential. He had threatened them in the past. They tried other things. They told the police. And when the police didn’t help them, I don’t think they had much confidence that the university would help them.
Jeff: Once you had the testimony from the victim along with all the other pieces that you referred to before, talk about the reaction of the editors at the Times, the managing editor, the publisher, once you had the victim.
Paul: Well, again, once we had the victim and we had these images that proved the allegations against the dean— We now had five reporters on it, this team we assembled in secret. We produced this very detailed, very vivid, well-written story that had all this material and was absolutely unassailable. We filed that in late March of 2017. And the reaction of the top editors, again, was to delay publication, along the way diluting certain parts of the story, and at the very end watering it down significantly before it was published.
And in the meantime, I initiated an internal investigation at the Times over their handling of the story. And that became known to the editors shortly, as far as I know, right around the time of publication or shortly after. And we protested this the entire way, the entire reporting team. I mean, we did everything we could to get that story published. We complained. We pleaded. We dealt with all the edits that we didn’t like. We thought they were weakening the story, making the story worse and worse, and we continued to fight back. And eventually, the story was published. It wasn’t as good as the story that had been filed three and a half months earlier, not by a longshot, but at least we finally got it published.
Jeff: What was their excuse? What were the reasons? You described many, many contentious meetings in Bad City. What was their reasoning for delay and delay and delay?
Paul: Well, to our minds, there was no reasoning. They would say things, “This requires more editing.” They turned it over to another editor who tried to re-write it, and that didn’t work. What he produced was unpublishable. So, as you say, in the book, I lay out, again, this struggle. We were never presented with any reasonable reason for the delay. There’s nothing about the story that was legally risky.
The first one, again, had been approved by the newsroom attorney for publication. The second one was as well. There was no need for any significant new reporting. Nothing came out of the story because it would’ve been, again, legally risky to the newspaper. We had everything nailed. So, there really wasn’t any reasonable excuse for delaying publication as long as they did.
Jeff: They was no legal concern about suits from USC?
Paul: Well, there’s an upfront concern about any story like this. That’s why you’re so careful, and we were very careful. Again, we had proof of what we were publishing, and it was all there in the draft. Again, when it finally got to the attorney, he had no trouble with it. He signed off on it.
Jeff: From the time you had the proof in hand until the story finally got published, how much time went by?
Paul: Three and a half months.
Jeff: And during this time, the dean, Puliafito, was continuing his activities?
Paul: Yes, he was.
Jeff: Including continuing his work as an eye surgeon?
Paul: Yes, performing eye surgeries.
Jeff: When the story finally got published, talk a little bit about what the reaction was, what happened at the LA Times.
Paul: Well, the story exploded on the web. The top editor himself said it was the biggest story of the year. So, now, they have to pursue it. Now, they can’t shut down any follow-ups, and they didn’t. They got out of the way, not entirely, but we were able to publish one follow-up after another, and the story grew and grew and grew. We found out that USC had had complaints about this dean for quite some time and did nothing about them. And again, eventually, that led to—
Well, first of all, he was removed. The dean was removed from the school. He eventually lost his medical license. There was a criminal investigation. I get into that about how that wasn’t much of an investigation. And in time, that led us to the other bad doctor on campus, George Tyndall. By that time, the three editors who we complained about had been fired.
Jeff: It was also a pretty tumultuous period for the LA Times. Give it a little background about that.
Paul: Yes. The company then was owned by Tronc which was a new name from the old Tribune company. The leadership was not good. After these editors were fired, they brought in another editor who did not have by any means the faith in the staff. He was eventually let go. So yes, it was a lot of turmoil. And that continued until we got a new owner, Patrick Soon-Shiong bought the paper. And only then after he took control did things really begin to settle down.
We started a union in the meantime, a guild, which was extremely important. I think my colleagues would agree with this, that if we had had a guild when we were fighting to get the story published, we wouldn’t have had to fight as hard as we did. We would have had protections on the job where we can really make our case, including publicly that this story wasn’t being handled the way it should be.
Jeff: Was it your sense that the turmoil and the fear of editors being fired and the questions of ownership and all of that, did that play a role in the timidity of the editor? So, was it strictly the pressure that USC brought to bear?
Paul: In Bad City, I’m very careful in what I report. And was this a matter of being afraid to publish a hard-hitting story like that? It could be. Was there something else involved? Who knows? So, I just stick to the facts of how I got this initial story. It was rock solid. It was approved for publication by the city editor, the California editor, the managing editor, the Page 1 editor, and the newsroom attorney, and it was killed anyway, at the very last moment. That should never happen, of course. Then we get the second story. And it’s bigger and even better. Again, it’s unkillable.
And still, it takes those three and a half months to get published. There’s just no journalistic reason for that. Now, what their actual motivations were, I can’t say for certainty, but I lay out what our concerns were in the book.
Jeff: Was there any evidence at all that USC was putting pressure on the paper?
Paul: No, nothing that I could prove. No. In terms of you mean, actually directly pressuring the top editors to keep the story out of the paper?
Jeff: Right, conversations they had had with the top editors. You talk about the friendship that existed between the editor-in-chief and Max Nikias, the president of USC.
Paul: Yes, there was that relationship. I know that when I defied the managing editor and went to Nikias’s house, and I left them a note, instead of, again, engaging with me giving me an interview, they sent a complaint about me to the paper, to the top editor. And in that complaint, as Bad City points out, there was this tone that there was some sort of relationship there, that I broke through some sort of rule that I wasn’t aware of that USC thought was in place in terms of how we treat the school. So again, that heightened my concerns.
Jeff: How did the George Tyndall story, the Dr. George Tyndall story, emerge from this?
Paul: Well, one of the other reporters on the USC story, Harriet Ryan, got a tip, just like the original tip on Puliafito. It was a very vague tip. It was about this doctor, there was something going on there. The tips we thought we should look into, and we did. And again, this is a matter of fanning out, knocking on doors, checking records, and eventually, persuading, building trust with some of his alleged victims, and getting them to speak. And by the way, at that point, with the three editors fired, the experience from the Tyndall story could not have been more different than it was in the Puliafito story.
We had the full backing of all the editors, including the top editor. The story was published within three weeks of the draft being filed, and it was just as hard-hitting and even legally riskier than the Puliafito story had been. Three weeks as opposed to three and a half months.
Jeff: To what extent do you think what went on in the history that everybody I’m sure knew by this time of the Puliafito story and how it had evolved and what had happened inside the paper, the impact that that had in setting the stage for a much faster response in terms of the Tyndall story?
Paul: Well, the impact, it was a change in personnel. That’s all it was. We had the enthusiastic backing of the top editors at the paper, as we should have had the first time around. And they knew that this was an urgent matter. You’re always careful. You always, you cover all your bases, but you get the story published. You don’t sit on a story when the story is about somebody who was allegedly hurting people, as was the case in both of these stories. So, the first one I filed the initial draft of the story on Puliafito of October of 2016. And again, it was killed in February of 2017.
It shouldn’t have taken that long to even get to the point where it was killed. And then the second story didn’t run till many months after that. The opposite happened with the George Tyndall story.
Jeff: You talk about the change of personnel, but the Puliafito story really changed the environment in some respects, with regard to the paper, I suppose feeling more comfortable about going after USC.
Paul: Yes, it was, again, a completely different experience. And then we published other stories on USC since then and have had that same experience, support, a sense of urgency given the importance of the topic, everything changed.
Jeff: So, the one thing that was different, as you say, was the personnel. So clearly, it seems that what held up the first story really had to do with individual decision-making to stop it.
Paul: That’s correct. That’s why I went to corporate and filed a complaint. And that’s why after I did that, so many people came forward. There was an HR investigation as a result of the complaint and dozens of my colleagues came forward to help in the investigation, which resulted in their firings.
Jeff: Talk about the pushback that has happened from some of those editors that you talk about, some of the editors that were fired, in response to your publication of Bad City.
Paul: Well, they’re denying everything. They’re calling me names, but it was perfectly expected, of course, and they’re getting a platform here and there. But whenever, nothing they said, in these past couple of weeks, changes anything in the book, nor will it ever. And before this, the three editors were threatening my publisher with a lawsuit. They tried to stop publication of the book. That went on for months. I got letters from lawyers, none of those letters contained anything that changed any of the facts in the book. And that’s true today, as well.
Jeff: And there were arguments, it seems having read most of them, there were arguments have really nothing to do with the underlying story. Their arguments really seem to be just about whether or not their edits were paid attention to.
Paul: Yes, again, nothing they have said can justify what happened. It’s just that’s never going to change. And some of these stories on this dispute, as some folks call it, they ignore the fact that all seven of us, the five reporters and two editors on the USC team, vouch for my account in Bad City, all seven. They can’t change that either.
Jeff: Has this made you more cynical? Has it changed your attitude about the work that you do at all?
Paul: No, because in the end, journalism prevailed. We won. We got the story published. We got some justice for these people. I think just the opposite. And I know this is true for my colleagues as well, it really showed that if you stick to it, even in defiance of your bosses, even without the support of them, if you just stick to that pursuit of the truth and get it published, you’re going to prevail in the end.
Jeff: And finally, Paul, talk a little bit about entrenched institutions in a city. One of your editors, I remember made the comment at one point that one of the excuses for not moving faster was that the head of the medical school wasn’t an elected official. But in fact, these entrenched institutions in any city have an enormous amount of power.
Paul: Of course, they do. I mean, USC is tremendously powerful in the city. And that’s really the bigger story in Bad City. The newsroom drama is one part, but the bigger picture is these institutions, how they are not held to account often enough by those that are responsible for holding them to account. And USC was one of them. The Pasadena Police Department is another, the District Attorney’s office. I mean, it’s a real problem in LA. And I tried to get at that in Bad City. And it just happened in this case, to spill over into the newsroom.
Jeff: Do you think the problem is worse in LA than it is in other major cities? And if so, why?
Paul: I do. Is that something you can prove with facts and figures? Maybe not. But it certainly is my sense. And because I’ve been doing this so long in LA, you don’t see a lot of public corruption cases brought by law enforcement agencies, again, prosecutors in LA. Especially at the county level, the District Attorney’s Office, you don’t see them in the same numbers you see elsewhere, including in smaller places. And it’s not because there isn’t corruption out there. I mean, if you read the LA Times, you understand there’s a lot of corruption in LA. And it just seems to be this passive approach to it by the people who are responsible for weeding it out.
And again, getting back to what you said at the top of the program that there’d be a lot less of it if it wasn’t for the newspaper. So many of these cases over the years that resulted in prosecution started with news stories, investigative stories.
Jeff: But why do you think LA is worse than some of these other cities? What is it about the political environment, the culture, what is it that makes it worse?
Paul: Journalists talk about this quite a bit. Is it because we’re on the West Coast, we’re out of the spotlight a lot unless it’s something about Hollywood, that sort of thing? Is it because, there are what? 88 cities within the county, we’re not a monolithic city? The DAs are elected so they don’t like to take risks in going after a big target in case they lose, which has happened as you know in some cases over the years here. I think all those factors combined. The feds are better at going after corruption, but again, I don’t think as aggressively as you see in other cities. Is that because they’re 3,000 miles away from headquarters in Washington, DC. It’s hard to say, but it does seem remarkable.
Jeff: Paul Pringle, his book is Bad City: Peril and Power in the City of Angels. Paul, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Paul: No, I appreciate it very much.
Jeff: Thank you.
Paul: Thanks for hearing me out.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast, I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.
Full Text Transcript (2 of 2 Matt Doig Responds to Paul Pringle):
(As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.)
Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. If you’re listening to this podcast, it’s most likely because you’ve listened to our previous podcast with longtime Los Angeles Times investigative reporter, Paul Pringle, and his stories about the criminal behavior of Paul Puliafito, the dean of the USC Keck School of Medicine, and about USC gynecologist, Dr. George Tyndall. The story has exposed individual criminal behavior, the university’s culture of corruption and lack of transparency.
And it all ultimately resulted in significant damage to the reputation of the institution and a change of administration at USC. Surprisingly, however, it also resulted in equal upheaval at the Los Angeles Times where the reporting of the story created its own tortured process and, not unlike at USC, resulted in internal strife, firings, and ongoing to this day, controversy. On one side of that story was three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Paul Pringle.
One of the players on the other side was then LA Times assistant managing editor of investigations, Matt Doig. Matt wrote a piece recently on Medium refuting many of the points made by Pringle in his book, Bad City, particularly with respect to the way and the pace with which the LA Times covered and reported the USC story. The different versions are stark. We invite you to draw your own conclusions as it is my pleasure to be joined today here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast by Matt Doig. Matt, thanks so much for joining us.
Matt Doig: No problem. Thanks for having me, Jeff.
Jeff: Well, it’s great to have you here. First of all, tell us a little bit about your background, your history, and particularly your time at the LA Times.
Matt: Well, I’ve been an investigative reporter and then editor for over 20 years starting in Florida. Then I went to Newsday in New York. Then I was at The Seattle Times right before going to the LA Times in 2017. I was only very briefly at the LA Times. I got there in about late February 2017 and then left in August, right when the eclipse happened, August 2017, and was swept out as part of this—
Pringle will say it has to do with the complaints he made, but from everything I’ve been told that it had to do with the Michael Ferro, Tronc, Davan relationship and the desire to sweep out top leadership and bring in a new cast of characters to run the place. But anyway, I’m currently an investigations editor at USA Today.
Jeff: And the people you’re referring to were part of an old regime, the old ownership at the LA Times, a company called Tronc before the current ownership was in place. It was a very fractious and tumultuous time at the LA Times, having nothing to do with this particular story. It was just the ownership situation and battles that were going on inside the paper.
Matt: Absolutely. When I got there, the soap opera was already like many years underway. And it was an open secret that the Tronc leadership and Davan were butting heads over closing bureaus and cutting staff and things of that nature, so it was definitely a very dysfunctional time at the LA Times.
Jeff: The Davan you referred to is Davan Maharaj, who was the editor-in-chief of the LA Times at that point. In the time you had been at the Times, what did you know or what sense did you have about the relationship between USC and the Times?
Matt: I really had no— I was an East Coast guy most of my life. I grew up a Miami Hurricanes football fans, so I really had no knowledge of USC at all. In fact, in the midst of all this turmoil and these accusations of corruption, one of my colleagues said, “You probably didn’t even know who Max Nikias was two weeks ago.” That was the truth. I had no idea. Obviously, they’re a big important institution, but I couldn’t even rank them on a scale of top 10 about how important they were in town.
I was just focused on the allegations in the story and I thought it was a really good story and that’s why I got involved in it.
Jeff: What was your first knowledge of this story, of Pringle’s story about Puliafito, the first story? When did you first become aware of it?
Matt: Yes, when I got there in late February, early March, by the time I had been there for a couple weeks, one of the things I do when I start a new job is I’ll ask, “What is stuck in the pipeline? Is there anything around that hasn’t run yet that I might be able to help get into the paper?” And there were a number. Every paper’s got a number of stories of that nature. At one point, somebody mentioned there’s some story about USC.
It wasn’t one of the reporters on the story, but somebody said there was some story about USC and the doctor doing drugs that’s been stuck and it’s a point of contention. Nobody ever sat me down and said here’s all the details and this is why it’s become a big problem in the newsroom and there’s a lot of drama around it. That conversation never happened. The first time I got a big download on the story was when I got the draft and then I met with some of the reporters on the story like a day or two after that.
Jeff: The story that you originally saw, was this the first story, the one that Pringle argues was spiked or was this the second story?
Matt: Right. Yes, the first story I wasn’t even at the LA Times yet and Davan and Marc would argue that it was never spiked. That first draft— and I’m just going on secondhand knowledge here. I’ve really tried to stick to what I was there for and have documents that I can prove, but from what I was told— I don’t think Pringle disputes this, the first story did not have the name of the woman that Puliafito was sleeping with and doing drugs with and all that.
Davan said, “Get the name of this woman and get her story, and then we’ll run this thing.” It wasn’t spiked. From what I’ve been told, it was sent back for additional reporting and the reporters were able to find that information. When I got involved on— I first got the draft on April 12 and by then, the reporters had the woman’s name.
Jeff: When you got the story on April 12, Marc Duvoisin, who was the managing editor at the LA Times, asked you to take a look at it. Talk a little bit about the events that unfolded from that point forward.
Matt: Well, Marc asked me to take a look at what the story looked like at that point. He said that like, “I’m really busy and I don’t have the time.” He said that it had become very contentious between him and the reporting team and he said he didn’t have time to deal with it. So, he said, “Do you mind hopping into this thing, taking a look at what they have? If you think we can get a story published, get it in shape and then re-engage with me when you think there’s something we can work with.” So, I did that.
I took a look at the draft the first time, April 12, immediately did a big edit on it, met with the reporters a day or two after I first got the story, and shared my thoughts and my edits and all that.
And then continued to work with the reporting team and then brought in the LA Times lawyer, Jeff Glasser, after about a month or so, and brought in Marc after about a month or so once I felt like, “All right, we’ve got this thing on track,” and gotten some details shored up that were missing from the draft I had been given. And I was like, “This is definitely going to be a story that we’re going to run, so it’s time to get the lawyer involved, to get Marc back involved.”
My total involvement in it was basically three months, April 12, and then we ran it on July 15 or mid-July sometime.
Jeff: What was your understanding at the very beginning about what was contentious about it, the reason it was turned over to you? You were told it was contentious. What did you understand the problem to be?
Matt: Just that Marc and the reporting team were butting heads over it. He didn’t get into details about it. He just basically said, “Take a look at this thing and see if there’s a story there,” which is like what my job is. So, he didn’t really get into details. I don’t even think I knew at that point that there had been a previous version that had been sent back for more reporting to get the woman’s name.
I was just dealing— this was one of many things I was dealing with at the time, so I just like jumped into it and said, “What do we need to do to get this thing published?” From the first meeting I had with the reporting team, Pringle especially was very angry and said from the get-go he didn’t think the thing was ever going to run. And I said, “Let’s set those things aside. I don’t think I would’ve been brought into this just to kill it.”
But he especially and some other members of the reporting team had very hurt feelings about the whole thing. By Pringle’s own admission and what I’ve seen in the excerpts, he was filing complaints and writing anonymous letters. So, by the time I stepped into it, he was already malcontent about the whole situation, so it didn’t take long for me to figure out that there was bad blood on this thing.
Jeff: Right. And what was your understanding as to why there was bad blood? What were people angry about? What was the issue beyond the fact that the story hadn’t run yet and that Puliafito was still the dean, still performing eye surgery, and there was a concern that until it ran, until he was exposed, there were people who were in danger?
Matt: Right. Pringle insisted from the get-go that it was never going to run, so that was kind of a source of frustration for him even though all indications otherwise pointed to us running it. And then there was a point, this is in the Medium post, it’s referenced kind of obliquely by Pringle, although he doesn’t share the details of it, the Willy and Hazel anecdote being taken out, he was very upset about the lawsuit with the University of California.
The reporting team was upset about that being— The whole thing wasn’t taken out. It was just the insinuation that Puliafito’s [inaudible 00:11:08] caused that lawsuit was the only thing that was taken out, but his role in it and all that was still in the story.
And frankly, the reporters were kind of yelling at Marc and I, not all of them, but they were upset with Marc and I up until the moment when we published, insisting that we were not holding USC and Puliafito accountable, even though every draft we were working with showed the opposite and the version we publish that showed the opposite. In fact, in that contentious meeting that Pringle references in The Hollywood Reporter excerpt, I shared what the draft looked like at that time.
As Marc and I are being confronted with protecting USC, the draft at that moment is almost the same draft that we ran in July. So, to be frank, the complaints they were making didn’t make sense to me because we were holding USC and Puliafito accountable, which is what the final version proved.
Jeff: Was there a sense on your part or Marc or anybody else, was there a sense of urgency about this? There certainly was for the reporting team, clearly.
Matt: Yes, there was. I had a sense of urgency. You’ll see in the notes that I gave the report on my very first edit I said, “Let’s zero in on what we can prove here because time is a factor with all of this.” So, yes, he was still a prominent person and still interacting with these people, but we have a responsibility as journalists to not rush out something that’s incomplete and there were key reporting details that still hadn’t been locked in.
So, in my first edit, I asked for, “Can we run these photos and videos by experts to where we can say definitively, this is meth, this is heroin,” instead of just kind of— I think the draft on heroin inherited said appears to be drugs. I wanted to be able to say, “You got drugs in this video.” That information, they didn’t get back to us on that until like June 8.
So, some of it was just we were waiting for the reporters to get the information that we’d asked for so the story would be less reliant on single anonymous sources or sources that had checkered criminal histories and get some of the documentation that would back up some of these stories.
Jeff: Was there a sense to maybe run a shorter version of this story earlier on to at least get the story exposed and then follow up and fill in as time went on?
Matt: Maybe we could have done that. There’s alternate universes where maybe that happened. All I know is we ran it when we did. There were no lawsuits. There were no corrections. It had the desired result, exposing it, and getting Puliafito pulled out of the equation, so there was no downside for us running it when we did. Everything worked out beautifully. If we ran it a month earlier, I don’t know, maybe it wouldn’t have had the same impact, maybe we would have gotten something wrong.
It’s a bunch of hypotheticals, but what I do know is when we ran it at the time we ran it, everything worked perfectly.
Jeff: Pringle makes the argument that the version that ran in July was watered down as a result of all the effort that had gone into it. Talk about that.
Matt: Well, this is what’s in the Medium post. I have on there the draft I was given on April 12 that he said was ready to run and you can see the version that we ultimately did publish online. He’s making a lot of allegations that we watered it down, but the Medium post clearly showed the things I asked for in that first edit, like the prescription, the drug expert, some of those other details were in the final story. And some of this is subjective. Was it better written or whatever? People can make up their own minds.
That’s the beauty of looking at the two versions, but it’s definitive proof that the things we asked for in early April did wind up being in the final version of the story and provided evidence that these weren’t just drug addicted people making wild allegations against Puliafito. Like we got the prescription, we got proof that these things were happening. So, anyway, Pringle was making a bunch of allegations and not really backing them up with documents or facts.
And I think what my Medium post did is puncture some of these allegations with actual source documents and people can make up their own minds whether the version he tried to run in April was as strong as the version we ran in July.
Jeff: He makes the argument that after the Puliafito story, when the George Tyndall story came along, that that went out immediately, that it didn’t go through this arduous three-month process. Talk a little bit about your views on that.
Matt: I have no idea. I was not there—
Jeff: You were gone by then.
Matt: Yes. I was not there for the Tyndall thing. I had no idea how that story came about. I also would kind of dispute the fact, the description of three months being an arduous process. For a story that sensitive, I’m only looking at the three-month window. I know there was a time period before, but in the three months I was on it, it wasn’t unnecessarily arduous on my part or on Marc’s part. Like I said, there was reporting we asked for that didn’t come in until June. The thing had to be lawyered.
And we ran it in mid-July. Nobody is pointing to one thing saying, “Hey, if you guys would had run this in mid-June instead of mid-July, dozens of lives would have been saved, or something like that.” It’s all kind of hypothetical harm that could have happened if we ran it earlier, but no harm actually did happen.
Jeff: You’ve been around this business of investigative journalism for a long time. To what extent does this story and the way it has played out fit into any kind of a pattern you’ve seen in the past? Or to what extent is it sui generis from what you’ve dealt with in the past?
Matt: Well, I’ve never had a relationship with the reporting team as contentious as this one. I tend to get along with my reporters, especially big important stories. There’s a we’re all in it together. In a different environment, maybe we would have gotten along swimmingly, but I was stepping into an already fraught situation, so I don’t know if that’s part of it or not. But, again, I was just kind of this— I was a new guy.
I’d just gotten in town, didn’t know all the players on the chessboard or why people were pissed off about one thing or another, but they were clearly already pissed off long before I got there, so I don’t know. So that’s a unique situation and one that I hope to never have to go through again.
Jeff: Do you have any sense with respect to why everybody was so pissed off before you got there, that there was any kind of special treatment that might have been given to USC, or that the relationship was such that it may have stood in the way in some respects and that that’s what set this off?
Matt: Again, this is all stuff that happened before I got there. But from what I’ve been told, I think the relationship between the LA Times and USC with the whole book fair thing or book festival, that was cemented in 2011. If you look at front-page stories between 2011 and 2017, when our Puliafito story ran, I think there’s like a dozen stories, negative stories about USC, many of them with Pringle’s byline, about the Pete Carroll thing and whoever the AD was at the time.
So, again, this all happened before I got here, but I know it’s kind of a piece of evidence Davan has thrown on the table to prove he wasn’t going easy on USC because there was a track record long before this story of Pringle himself getting negative USC stories on the front page. So, again, Pringle was making a bunch of big allegations about corruption and protecting USC, but kind of all the evidence points to other things.
Jeff: What does it point to in your view?
Matt: Again, I can only talk about my short time with that crew on this story, and they were clear— and again, this is also in the excerpts. Pringle did not like the leadership of the paper, did not like the ownership of the paper, and he was working to help create a union at the paper. All those things may have been totally justified I have no idea. Maybe the leadership, they did need to get bounced out. I mean, Tronc was obviously one of the worst newspaper owners in history. So, I’m no Tronc fan at all. So, he was angry.
By his own admission, he was angry about all those things and trying to enact change, and he’s the one tying those things. He’s got that stuff in his book about this story, so he’s tying all these threads together around this, so clearly, he sees these things as related. I mean, he was a guy who was trying to get rid of his bosses and the newspaper’s owner by his own admission.
And at the same time, he was very frustrated about this story, so I don’t know what his motivation was, but I could only read between the lines on what he’s put out there.
Jeff: Was there, in your view and even during the period of time you were there, did you sense a hypersensitivity that management had, that reporters had, just about all the turmoil that was going on with respect to ownership and union and the paper and everything else? Were people’s nerves frayed is the broader question?
Matt: Everybody hated Tronc at the time. I wasn’t even aware of the union’s effort. I think that was a secret for months, and maybe it didn’t even come out until after we left, but I was totally unaware of any union effort at the time. When I went down and did the interview, there had been a month or two earlier an LA Magazine piece about the tense situation inside the LA Times and dealing with Tronc and stuff like that. So, I knew, of course, I was asking people about that on the job interview and how much a factor it was.
And I was placated by people who were like, “Look, I’m not the biggest Davan fan in the world, but you got to give that guy credit because he’s fought Michael Ferro on closing the bureau in DC and all that.” So even the people who had an ax to grind with Davan were saying he’s done a good job of preventing Tronc from being even more awful than they were.
But yes, I think that’s standard and unfortunately there’s plenty of papers out there right now with terrible ownership and that creates a bad vibe in a newsroom with people who just want to do great work.
Jeff: And you’ve said a couple of times, you were a small part of this, you came in late to the party, et cetera. Why have you jumped in to respond to so much of this? Some of your colleagues that were there from the beginning of this saga have not really responded.
Matt: Yes. Well, first of all, some of this is like being in a Twilight Zone episode. I remember when these allegations first came out, and they had filed their HR complaint against Marc and Davan, as far as I know, there was never an HR complaint filed against me, it was against Marc and Davan. But it’s like when they said that, that Marc and Davan were corrupt and were trying to protect USC, I was like, “What the hell are they talking about?”
I mean, I was there for it, and I was like, “Didn’t everybody see the story we ran?” Like how was that protecting USC? So, I just thought it was crazy when the allegations first came out, and easily proven as crazy, because I do time machine backups of my computers just to be safe. So, I had all the drafts and emails and things like that that would show this paper trail of how involved we were, and how we tried to strengthen the story, how we successfully strengthened the story.
So, part of the reason I’m in on this is my job is to tell a story that gets as close to the truth as humanly possible, and this narrative that Pringle’s been spinning since 2017 is just so absurd and so far from the truth that it just bugs me. Even if I wasn’t in his line of fire, it would bug the hell out of me, but then I’ve got all these records. I’ve got dozens and dozens of emails and story drafts and whatever narrative Pringle is spinning, I probably have an email that I can be like, “No, that’s not true, and here’s the source document that proves it.”
I’m not in this willingly. I didn’t jump into this for shits and giggles. I was dragged into this against my will, but I’m not just going to sit here quietly as my credibility is attacked with a bunch of nonsense that I can prove is nonsense.
Jeff: Was there an effort to stop publication of the book, stop publication of Bad City, and were you involved in that effort?
Matt: That’s another misrepresentation by Pringle, but I did hire a lawyer, but only because Pringle reached out to me in December, said he was doing this book. And again, I’ve got all these emails, I could show it to you after you’ve done recording here. And I asked him, “Okay, I’ve got all my emails and documents. What are you going to say in the book about me? And if it’s appropriate, I’ll answer you.” And he said he was giving me a week to respond.
He would not tell me what he was going to put in there. He wouldn’t even tell me who his publisher was. I sent him an email saying can you put me in touch with the fact checker, and the lawyer, the publishing house and I’ll deal with them, and he wrote back and said, “I’m the reporter, you will deal with me.” I thought he was self-publishing. One, because I thought nobody would believe this ridiculous story, but also because he wouldn’t tell me who his publisher was.
But Marc Duvoisin found a promo page for it, and we found out who the publisher was, so I reached out to the publishing house, said the same thing. Can I find out what’s in here, I’ve got documents, I’ve got records. Publishing house wouldn’t answer my questions either. So, then I hired a lawyer which I didn’t want to have to do, and the first thing she says to me is, “You’re not going to be able to stop this book.”
So, like I’m not going to make any threats about stopping it or anything like that, so get that out of your head, and she never did. I’ve got the letter she sent to the publishing house. She never demanded that they not publish the book. The only thing she asked for was the same thing I asked for, “Can you tell us what’s going to be in the book? My client’s got emails, documents, all that stuff. We can answer the questions here.” They never provided that stuff.
She followed up with a letter four months later to tell them, “You guys still haven’t provided this stuff,” and they never got back to us, so it’s not true that I ever threatened to shut down the book or anything like that.
Jeff: Did you know at that point the degree to which you would become a part of this story?
Matt: Well, I did know that. He said I was going to be in the book, he just wouldn’t tell me what he was going to say about me, or give me an opportunity to respond to it. And again, I would rather be talking to you about things other than this. This is not something I aimed to be involved with.
Jeff: And finally, are you in touch with your former colleagues from this period at the LA times, all of whom are, as we’ve talked about, gone from the paper by now?
Matt: Yes. We’ve been talking about this since Pringle first reached out in December.
Jeff: Have you been appointed as the point person or it’s just evolved that way?
Matt: No, originally, it evolved that way when I told Marc and Davan from the get-go, “I’ve got all these records if you guys need them for your own defense, let me know. And you’re welcome to them.” The first few excerpts that came out didn’t name me at all, and I thought maybe when I told Pringle, “I’ve got all these records and stuff like that,” I thought Pringle may have said, ‘All right, this guy’s not worth it, he’s kind of a bit player in this whole thing anyway, I’m just not going to put him in there.”
Because the first three or four excerpts just named Marc and Davan and not me, but then The Hollywood Reporter excerpt came out and dragged me, so then I was like, “All right, he does have me in there.” So, nobody appointed me, but that was after the combination of The New York Times review and The Hollywood Reporter excerpt, where I was like, “All right, now I got to have some response to this,” and that’s why I did the Medium post.
Jeff: And how do you think this will finally play out? Just fade away or what is your sense of that?
Matt: I mean, I don’t know. I feel like I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish. The people I want to work for, the people I want to work with, the people I want working for me, if they have questions about whether I’m corrupt or afraid to take on a big institution, those folks will take the time to read the Medium post, and everybody who has reached out to me about it has said it’s pretty definitive, and I brought evidence.
And so, nobody’s saying, “Wow, you have a shaky case here and you didn’t really convince me.” So, I feel like I’ve done what I set out to do and proved I’m not corrupt, and if it dies down from here, that’s totally fine. If Pringle continues to push this false narrative, maybe I need to do something else, but I don’t know. I would rather just move on with my life at this point.
Jeff: Matt Doig, I thank you so much for sharing this story with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Matt: No problem, Jeff. You got my number, if you need me to follow up or anything, just feel free to reach out.
Jeff: All right. Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast, I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.