July 21, 2022

It is a familiar tale in the news business. A hard-charging investigative reporter bangs on doors, works relentlessly and resourcefully, and turns in a draft, excited to see his scoop in print.

The reporter’s editors say the story needs more work. That doesn’t go over well. Shouted accusations ensue in meetings over the coming weeks and months.

Such acrimonious sausage-making most often stays in-house. Now, an instance has burst into the open with the publication this week of Paul Pringle’s “Bad City: Peril and Power in the City of Angels.” (An excerpt ran last week in The Hollywood Reporter)

The book chronicles Pringle’s work at the Los Angeles Times uncovering wrongdoing at the University of Southern California — specifically the story of a medical school dean found in a hotel room in the company of a young woman who had overdosed on meth.

In media circles, the more explosive part of Pringle’s book is an accusation that his editors tried to kill the story, then weakened it by deleting some of his best material, before it was ultimately published three months later.

Not so, says Marc Duvoisin, then the managing editor of the Los Angeles Times and now editor-in-chief of the San Antonio Express-News. It was simply a matter of standards, he wrote in a Facebook post.

“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.”

Beyond question, the story had a big impact. The USC dean, Dr. Carmen Puliafito, lost his job and his career. The exposé also paved the way to an even more damaging investigation a year later of an OB-GYN med school faculty member who had sexually abused students he treated. That professor lost his job too, as ultimately did the president of USC. The latter story, by Pringle and two other reporters, won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting.

Two other editors slammed by Pringle, investigations editor Matthew Doig and editor-in-chief Davan Maharaj, have also offered rebuttals. Doig, now an investigations editor at USA Today, posted his detailed rejoinder on Medium. In a private Facebook post, Maharaj weighed in with a copy of Pringle’s draft and posted it alongside the final edited story as it ran.

Those receipts don’t look good for Pringle’s case. Parts of his draft are sketchy. Among the improvements in the final version, the young woman who overdosed is identified, pictured and quoted by name. Four other reporters worked on the piece and, together with Pringle, much more detail and context was added.

As I read Pringle’s account, he was anxious (as many a reporter might be) that someone else would pick up on key details, break the story and undercut his work as it languished in turnaround.

“The calendar bedeviled us,” Pringle writes on page 178 of “Bad City,” “as the edit, or this perversion of an edit, devolved into daily combat as we tried to inch the story to publication.”

If any real damage resulted from the delay, though, I couldn’t make that out from his account.

Pringle accused the editors, both at the time and in the book, of corruptly deferring to the powers that be at USC.

“The editing process, as you might imagine,” Duvoisin writes in his post, “became uniquely contentious as a result. Clashes erupted over what constitutes adequate confirmation of damaging allegations and what doesn’t; over how much to rely on anonymous sources and how to verify what they say.”

There’s more. Pringle suggests that the three editors were fired soon after because of their bungling of the story (he had lodged a complaint about them with human resources). That appears to mostly be a hunch. I would bet instead that the higher-ups at Tronc, which then owned the Times, simply wanted to install a new publisher who then hired a new editor with an odd turnaround plan that never worked at all.

A second front has opened in the war over the story. The New York Times in a highly positive book review and the Los Angeles Times in both a review and a news story simply accept Pringle’s version of events. (The news story includes denials from Duvoisin and Maharaj.)

Duvoisin told me in an interview that he is particularly irked that his requests for correction or retraction to both papers have gone unanswered.

“It’s very hard to get in front of what seems like a steamroller,” he said. “To be on the other side of a media monolith is quite sobering.”

At first, he was advised to let the matter go, Duvoisin said, and inclined to do that so as “not to give it oxygen.” Seeing top-of-the-line news outlets trash his reputation without checking what could easily be checked changed his mind, he said. “It’s really hard to find your voice, though, when you’re under attack.”

Duvoisin got a lawyer last December when Pringle offered a chance to comment while the book was in the final editing stages. The offer was vague, Duvoisin said, and he declined. He did not trust Pringle and was put off by pre-publication ads on Amazon blaring that “Bad City” would show “corruption reaching all the way to the top of the masthead.”

He and his lawyer sought a meeting to make their case to publisher Celadon Books, a division of Macmillan Publishing, Duvoisin said, but were rebuffed.

I expect other chapters to unfold as the dispute continues — responses from the book publisher or the two newspapers, perhaps, or new moves from Duvoisin and the other editors.

On Friday, The New York Times responded to Duvoisin’s complaint. It changed its headline and subheadline in the digital version of the review and noted the revisions in a correction. The original had read, “U.S.C. Sex Scandals and the Paper That Tried to Cover Them Up,” with a deck headline, “In 2016, editors at The Los Angeles Times were reluctant to publish reporting that would portray the university and its top fund-raisers in a negative light.” Revised, it read, “The Power of the Press,” with a deck hed, “A Los Angeles Times reporter takes on a powerful university — and his own paper.”)

My own experience in decades of editing has been that book publishers, once committed, tend to blow off challenges, even good ones, to what’s in print. Their only real remedy is the atom bomb of calling copies back from book stores and shredding them.

The New York Times has been known to be slow and grudging with corrections. Duvoisin said he got his complaint in front of the organization’s standards committee and hopes it is getting consideration.

In a quick partial read, I could see that “Bad City” is engagingly told and convincing — not necessarily inviting a reaction of, “Hey, wait a minute …”

The situation brings to mind a juncture in classics of the genre like “All the President’s Men” or the best-picture movie “Spotlight,” where the intense reporters are told by editors they don’t have it yet. They are unhappy as they head back for more arduous reporting — but not as unhappy as Pringle remains.

Correction/update: This analysis was updated to remove a note that much of Pringle’s original draft was anonymously sourced. That draft used only one anonymous source. This article was also edited to include an update that The New York Times had responded to Duvoisin’s complaint and changed its headline and subheadline in response.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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