The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A reporter probes a powerful university — and fights with his editors

The University of Southern California's student health center. Reporting by Paul Pringle and others at the Los Angeles Times helped reveal abuses by George Tyndall, a gynecologist at USC, as well as other campus scandals. (Richard Vogel/AP)

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

The tip involved an unconscious young woman, an influential dean of the medical school at the University of Southern California and a hotel room full of drugs. A photographer passed along the tip to Paul Pringle, a veteran investigative reporter at the Los Angeles Times. Pringle was determined to unravel what occurred that Friday afternoon at the Hotel Constance in Pasadena, northeast of Los Angeles. His quest turned into a fierce 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, along with four other reporters, to uncover what happened to the young woman in the hotel room and to bring a powerful man to justice. He also details two other scandals that engulfed USC: a second predatory doctor and the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal. Ultimately, Pringle’s book is about a reporter crusading for justice.

The bad guys in Pringle’s book are real, but it’s not always clear if he knows who they are. He spends nearly as much time writing about his conflicts with top editors at the Los Angeles Times as he does the doctors at the heart of the book: Carmen Puliafito, dean of USC’s medical school, who was using and distributing 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 who won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 2019 for stories about Tyndall — yet Pringle doesn’t address Tyndall until nearly the end of the book. Instead, he spends an inordinate amount of time on what feels like score settling with the newspaper’s former top editors: Davan Maharaj, then the newspaper’s publisher and editor in chief, and Marc Duvoisin, then its managing editor. He levels 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 the new investigations editor at the Times, also comes in for some criticism. 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, now in a similar role at USA Today, wrote a lengthy rebuttal on Medium in which he calls Pringle “a fabulist who is grossly misrepresenting the facts to support his false narrative.” Maharaj responded to the post, saying Doig did an “excellent job shooting down the endless falsehoods in ‘Bad City.’” Duvoisin, too, wrote a post 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 multiple rounds of editing and rewriting. It’s not unusual for editors to ask for more reporting or to restructure a story. This process can be lengthy and intense. It can involve conflict. The result should be a better story, which 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 “quickest way” to tell Pringle was “abusing the truth” was to compare the draft with the story that ran in the newspaper a few months later. There’s no question that the published version is better.

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

By the time the team set their sights on the second doctor, those top editors were gone. The newspaper’s human resources department had begun an internal investigation after Pringle complained. The three editors were fired, along with some other employees, as part of “important 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 doesn’t do much to counter Pringle’s description of him as someone who lashes out. In his rebuttal, he describes the reporters on the Puliafito story as “pitching a prolonged tantrum.” And Pringle, even by his own account, was consumed by anger.

This ugly tit-for-tat overshadows the real villains of the book. 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 were abused. Exposing Tyndall and the university’s complicity in protecting him is the best kind of investigative journalism.

It’s a shame that an overblown dispute with editors has eclipsed the vital work done by the Times’ journalists.

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

Bad City

Peril and Power in the City of Angels

By Paul Pringle

Celadon. 352 pp. $29.99.