Personal

Sex, Meth, Lies and Journalism

By Matthew Doig
Originally published on Medium

I don’t plan to read Paul Pringle’s book Bad City, even though this excerpt in The Hollywood Reporter shows I’m a featured character. In Pringle’s telling, I’m an ill-tempered buffoon of an editor with sub-par journalism standards and someone who can’t recognize a good story from a great one. This version of me, Pringle claims, joined my corrupt then-colleagues — editors Marc Duvoisin and Davan Maharaj — to try and thwart Pringle and his band of heroic reporters working in secret to expose wrongdoing at the University of Southern California. And, Pringle says, Duvoisin, Maharaj and I were willing to set our credibility on fire to protect a book festival.

This is utter bullshit, and 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.

Fortunately, I don’t need anyone to take my word for it. I have every email and story draft I exchanged with reporters and editors concerning the Puliafito/USC story — from the moment I got involved in April 2017 until we published a bulletproof story in July 2017 that ended Dr. Carmen Puliafito’s career, thoroughly embarrassed USC and resulted in zero corrections, clarifications, or lawsuits against the LA Times. (I’ll link to several of the documents I cite here, but I am willing to hand over the entire file — dozens of records amounting to a definitive paper trail of how the story evolved — to a serious journalist with the time to go through them and draw their own conclusions).

The quickest way to prove that Pringle is abusing the truth when he says Duvoisin and I simply delayed the story and added no value is to compare Pringle’s draft that Duvoisin emailed to me on April 12, 2017 to the story that we published on the front page on July 17 of that year.

Pringle’s draft includes my handwritten notes, which I shared with the reporting team on April 14 before we met that same day to go over my thoughts and to discuss how to get the story published. I sent them this emailalong with my notes, and then sent this recap email a day later. (I’ve redacted from the documents only the names of individuals who were not in the published story).

Contrary to Pringle’s allegation that we were trying to water down his draft and protect USC, these records show I consistently encouraged the reporters to be much more critical of Puliafito and university officials. Duvoisin and Maharaj never objected to this more aggressive tone, which is apparent in the version they ultimately approved.

From the email with my attached notes:

I don’t think the top you have now works because it slow walks the reader into the story and the pivot just isn’t dramatic enough. Better to go hard at Puliafito and then USC with our strongest, most unimpeachable material.

From the email recapping my conversation with the reporters:

The top should hit Puliafito and USC much harder than it currently does. He’s doing much more than socializing with criminals and drug users, he is a drug user and he’s committing crimes. The extent that USC has ducked us should [be] explicit and cause them shame.

The handwritten notes I shared with reporters echoed these points and show other ways I asked for them to be stronger in calling out Puliafito and USC. For example, I wrote that the reporters should ‘Hit harder [the] extent they’ve ducked us.’ In the part where reporters visited USC President Max Nikias’s office and were rebuffed, I asked ‘Was he hiding in his office?’ so that we could include that detail, if it were true. I asked about Puliafito’s access to drugs used at the school for research purposes, and ‘What is USC’s responsibility’ in making sure he wasn’t misappropriating them. I told the reporters they had less important information that should fall lower in the story ‘after we show USC admin dodging reporters.’ And I flagged three paragraphs buried deep in the story that detailed Puliafito’s drug use captured in photos and videos and wrote, ‘Need more of this way up in the top.’

Pringle again mangles the truth when he suggests that I was dismissive of his story because Puliafito was not an elected official. What I wanted was for the story to quickly address any question a reader might have about why the LA Times was making such a big deal about the affairs of a private citizen, which is somewhat atypical. And I didn’t think the reporters had gone far enough in making the case that he was an ongoing danger to the public.

‘Top could use a brief mention that we don’t normally air this kind of dirty laundry of private citizen, but [Puliafito’s] case is special because he still has access to students, patients, drugs, etc’ my handwritten note in Pringle’s draft says. The recap email makes the same point.

A bit lower in the story, Pringle’s draft states, “Puliafito continues to treat patients at university clinics and speak at USC events.” I flagged the first part of the sentence about treating patients and added the following note: ‘This is key — don’t be so abrupt about it.’

The records also show I suggested that the reporters seek out additional information or documents that would bolster their findings. Sarah Warren, the young companion Puliafito had met through an escort service, said she did meth in Puliafito’s office — “the one with degrees on the wall and the nameplate on his desk” — and I asked if they could get ‘Better detail than what’s in every Dr’s office.’ Warren’s brother Charles said Puliafito wrote him a prescription for an inhaler, and I asked, ‘Can we get it?’, meaning a copy showing Puliafito as the prescribing physician. Pringle’s April draft states that photos and videos show Puliafito with “what appears to be heroin, methamphetamine, nitrous oxide and ecstasy.” My note asks, ‘Why can’t we be more authoritative?’ and I suggested that the reporters reach out to experts who could confirm what drugs were in the photos and videos.

These are just some examples of suggestions I made very early in the editing process. As you can see in the final version that was published, this advice did make the story more authoritative and less reliant on allegations from individuals that readers might deem unreliable sources.

Photo by David Everett Strickler on Unsplash

Pringle cites as evidence of editorial malfeasance two threads of reporting that were removed or reduced, as well as an effort to “disappear the whistleblower.” The Hollywood Reporter excerpt states: “Substantive deletions imposed on the draft benefited Puliafito, Nikias, and USC.”

These allegations are, at best, half-truths and bad faith misrepresentations.

“First, the section on Puliafito’s success in poaching grant-funded researchers from other schools and USC’s dogfight with UC San Diego over the Alzheimer’s lab — the potential motive for the Nikias administration to protect Puliafito — was cut in half,” according to The Hollywood Reporter piece.

Puliafito’s role in poaching the UC researcher and his appearance in the lawsuit are in the story that we published. What we cut, as you can see from Pringle’s April draft, is the insinuation of a direct correlation between Puliafito’s drug use and him botching the recruitment in a way that led to the lawsuit. The reporters did not know whether Puliafito was using meth while he was on the phone wooing the Alzheimer’s researcher. Beyond Puliafito calling himself the “quarterback” of the recruitment effort, the reporters couldn’t specify what he had done to land the researcher. Instead of shutting down that line of reporting, I suggested that they interview the UC researcher to see if he had any indication that Puliafito was on drugs. If they ever followed through, I never heard about it.

The second point of Pringle’s criticism was that “paragraphs on Hazel and Willy, which showed that Puliafito’s relationship with Sarah Warren pointed to a longer-term penchant for associating with young criminals, were excised in full.”

(Hazel and Willy are apparently pseudonyms Pringle is using to protect the anonymity of individuals whose names were never published in the LA Times, at least concerning the Puliafito matter. I have redacted their real names, and the name of one other person removed from the published story, from the documents I’ve shared.)

In Pringle’s April draft, you can find the supposedly shocking information he unearthed about Puliafito, Hazel and Willy: Puliafito allegedly smoked medical marijuana with the duo, took Hazel shopping and she watched his dogs. That’s it. That’s Pringle’s explosive example that his editors were corrupt. He’s saying we dropped marijuana-enhanced shopping excursions from the story to protect USC’s reputation, even as we somehow had no problem publishing a huge exposé about their meth-smoking dean cavorting with a sex worker in his university office.

Pringle told me that the relationship between Puliafito and Hazel was more nefarious than what was in his draft but that the information he had was given to him off the record. I told him that if he could get something better than marijuana and shopping — and get it on the record — I’d be happy to put it the story. He never did.

It’s also worth noting that Duvoisin, Maharaj and I were ousted from the LA Times in August 2017. Pringle has had nearly five years to prove that it was his corrupt editors who prevented him from getting his reporting on Willy and Hazel into the paper, but he’s published nothing about them. Even now, in the excerpt, he’s using pseudonyms and declining to reveal the damning information he says we removed to protect USC. That’s because he has nothing more than the thin gruel you can find in his April 2017 draft.

Instead of getting additional reporting on the UC lawsuit, or Willy and Hazel, the reporting team obstinately reinserted the same language into draft after draft. LA Times lawyer Jeff Glasser let me know that Pringle and another reporter had come to him and tried to get him to say that I was wrong and that the information I wanted to cut from the story was fine with him. He said he told them they were wrong and that he would not approve that language either. Still, the reporters persisted in adding the language to subsequent drafts.

As for the whistleblower that Duvoisin and I tried to disappear, first take a look at what the draft looked like on June 1, 2017, shortly before that contentious June meeting referenced in The Hollywood Reporter excerpt. It was in this same meeting that Duvoisin and I would be berated for allegedly failing to hold USC accountable. Judge for yourself whether that draft looks like we were pulling punches.

In the meeting, we discussed with the reporting team that Pringle’s whistleblower was a single, anonymous source, with no documentation to back up his claim that he had called the USC president’s office to warn Nikias about Puliafito’s behavior. As the June 1 draft shows, we had worked with the reporters to put together a story that was devastating to both Puliafito and Nikias, full of unimpeachable evidence backed up by photos, videos, and other documents. Duvoisin and I told the reporters that if Nikias held a press conference the day the story published, said no whistleblower ever called his office and challenged us to prove otherwise, the attention would shift to that and detract from all the iron clad proof we had in the story. We’d be turning a clear victory into a loss.

In that June meeting, the reporters announced they had found a second source who could corroborate the whistleblower’s account: the whistleblower’s wife, whom he told about the phone call. Duvoisin, accurately, told them that telling a spouse does not qualify as a second source. The reporters erupted in anger, yelled at Duvoisin and suggested that he and I had somehow been compromised by USC.

Pringle’s own account of this meeting shows how the whistleblower ultimately made it into the final version that we published. Duvoisin recommended that the reporters get a phone record from the whistleblower showing that he had placed a call to Nikias’s office. Pringle got the phone record. But in his warped telling, it was some sort of “implicit threat” Pringle made to Duvoisin that got the whistleblower into the story, and not the fact that Duvoisin had given him good advice on how to do it.

Photo by Shubham Dhage on Unsplash

There’s an important backstory to this that, I suspect, Pringle has failed to disclose in his book.

I joined the LA Times as the Assistant Managing Editor for Investigations in late-February 2017. Pringle is accurate when he wrote that we discussed the Puliafito/USC story the first time we met, although our meeting was not set up to talk about that story.

One of my first tasks at the LA Times was to build a dedicated I-team (at that time there were investigative reporters scattered across several desks, but not a specific squad doing only deep-dive investigations). Duvoisin and Maharaj gave me a list of maybe a dozen internal candidates they thought I might consider. They said it was completely my decision on who to choose and gave me no information, positive or negative, about any of the candidates.

During my first couple of weeks, I met with and interviewed everyone on the list, including three of the reporters who would have bylines on the Puliafito/USC story. At the time I had only heard vague comments about a USC story that was in the works. I didn’t know which reporters were working on it, and I knew nothing about the Game of Thrones-esque drama enveloping it. Nobody told me that this story was an unhatched dragon egg destined to burn the whole place to the ground.

I reached out to Pringle to set up a chat in my office one evening. It was the first time we’d met, and I knew nothing about him beyond a few clips I’d read to prep for our meeting. Those included an investigation about firefighters and nepotism, which I liked and had remembered reading when it originally published. We talked a bit about that story, and as I do with any job candidate, I asked him what he was currently working on. He gave me the broad outlines of the Puliafito/USC story.

“Wow, that’s a good story,” I said.

Pringle’s attitude from the start of the meeting had been oddly standoffish and distrustful, but this comment turned his demeanor to anger.

“Good story? This is a great story,” he said, seemingly offended.

I thought he might be joking or something, so I kind of awkwardly repeated myself and waited for the punchline: “Right. That’s a really good story.”

He stood up and yelled at me: “That’s it! I’m not going to sit here and listen to you insult me!” He started to walk out.

Remember, I was such an LA Times newbie at that time that I barely knew where the men’s room was located. I had no idea what the hell was going on or why he was so angry. “Jesus Christ,” I said. “Fine, this is the greatest story of all time. Now can you sit down so we can finish our conversation?” I told him that I hadn’t seen so much as a budget line for the story, much less a draft of it.

He sat down and glowered at me as we wrapped up the most bizarre job interview I’d ever had.

Needless to say, I didn’t pick him to join the I-team. (I also didn’t pick the other two candidates who worked the Puliafito/USC story, although neither of them disgraced themselves in the interview the way Pringle had).

Despite that unpleasant interaction (the details of which I’ve shared over the years with a few close colleagues), I didn’t flinch when Duvoisin asked me a month later to take a look at Pringle’s draft and determine whether there was a story we could publish. By then I had five investigative reporters chasing their own ambitious projects, and I was also working with reporters around the newsroom to help elevate work as needed. But I made time to help get the Puliafito/USC story published because I thought it was critical for the LA Times to hold such a powerful local institution accountable. Yes, it was a great story. And despite having to deal with a few reporters pitching a prolonged tantrum, I’m glad I got to be a part of it.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

After Puliafito and USC, Pringle is the worst actor in this whole ordeal. But there are others who deserve blame for letting it reach the point where his fabricated tale is getting not only credence but praise.

Pringle’s publisher — Celadon Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers — conducted a pitifully weak fact check, if they did one at all. When Pringle emailed me last December to say that I was “central to the narrative” in his upcoming book — which was already near completion and being advertised on Amazon and elsewhere — he refused to give me specific points to which I might respond. He wouldn’t even tell me who his publisher was.

After Duvoisin and I engaged with Celadon’s lawyer, Diana Frost, we offered to meet with her and share the emails, drafts and other documents I have so we could show her that what Pringle was saying wasn’t true. Frost refused to meet with us or see the records.

Frost later sent an email to a colleague that she accidentally also sent to Duvoisin’s attorney (I absolutely love when that happens). In the email, Frost wrote:

I know from Paul that he has consulted both Jeff Glasser and Shelby Grad. Although I have not spoken to either of them directly, I do have faith in Paul and he tells me that he has reviewed the relevant facts with them and they have confirmed those facts. I think he has also let Jeff read the entire manuscript.

Duvoisin’s attorney forwarded that email to Kelli Sager, who represents the LA Times. Sager responded:

First, as I have already made clear in my prior correspondence, the Book that Paul Pringle authored is being published by Macmillan, not by The Times. Mr. Glasser did not “read the entire manuscript,” as you claim in your correspondence, nor has he “‘reviewed’ and ‘confirmed’ crucial parts of Pringle’s manuscript.” He has not read it. The Times is not responsible for, and has not vouched for its content. Nothing in your email changes anything in my prior letters.

Somebody was caught lying here, yet Celadon pressed ahead with the book and the promotion plan.

Besides The Hollywood Reporter, Los Angeles Magazine published a separate excerpt of Pringle’s book. Perhaps assuming Celadon had appropriately handled the fact check and had fully notified us of the contents of the book, neither organization contacted Duvoisin or Maharaj before publishing their excerpts (I was not named in the LA Mag piece).

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.

Finally, Pringle’s employer, the LA Times. To her credit, Maria La Ganga at least contacted Duvoisin and Maharaj to let them know she was putting together a story and seeking comment. Duvoisin asked me if I’d be willing to to reach out to La Ganga, tell her about the documents I had and provide any appropriate context as a first-hand witness to much of what happened. I emailed La Ganga and followed up with a phone call a day later when I hadn’t heard from her. Each time I made it clear that I had critical information I was willing to share with her. She never responded.

I’m perhaps most disappointed in LA Times attorney Jeff Glasser, who was a no comment in La Ganga’s piece. Glasser knows as well as any of us that the claims in Pringle’s book are not true. Glasser reviewed the story even before I got involved in April 2017. Once I was asked to edit the piece, Glasser came into my office to warn me that Pringle and another reporter on the team had had major problems on prior stories. He said they were hostile to editing and legal reviews and had in the past been prevented from cutting corners on stories that could have led to significant legal problems for the paper.

Jeff, if you have any integrity, stop hiding behind that no comment. Come forward, tell the truth and put an end to this foolishness.

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