Review: “Bad City,” story behind Paul Pringle’s USC expose

On the shelf

Bad City: Danger and power in the city of angels

By Paul Pringle
Celadon: 304 pages, $30

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There are moments in Paul Pringles’ book Bad City when the reporter encounters an unexpected obstacle in his campaign to expose wrongdoing at USC – his own bosses at the Los Angeles Times. The paper’s two top editors, he writes, have repeatedly abridged the stories Pringle is working on to bring to light the stories about the drug and sex habits of Carmen Puliafito, the seedy dean of USC medical school, mitigated and in one case strengthened. and the enabling of his bad behavior by the university.

Pringle is a veteran investigative reporter at The Times. “Bad City” is set in the more recent past – 2016 to be precise – when Davan Maharaj was Editor-in-Chief of The Times. (I worked under Maharaj at The Times from 2011 to 2014.) As Pringle’s story dies its slow death, Pringle begins to wonder if Maharaj is in cahoots with USC’s top honchos, and eventually he and his colleagues leave covertly in her own newspaper. (Maharaj denies the claim that he was unaware that additional reporters would have helped Pringle develop the story.) It’s a startling twist that makes Bad City a powerful and genuinely original addition to the investigative journalism genre.

This drama is sparked by two major scandals at USC, involving two doctors employed by the university: the dean of the medical school, Carmen Puliafito, and a gynecologist who worked at USC’s student health center. Both doctors took advantage of young women to satisfy their lustful desires. Eventually, the book becomes a scathing critique of USC’s culture of secrecy and its shameful efforts to protect its public image. The university’s supportive role in the varsity blues’ college admissions scandal serves as a kind of coda to a dark tale of privilege, amorality, and cover-ups. At the end of Bad City, even the most die-hard Trojan fans will find their loyalty to the ultimate test.

The tropes of the investigative reporter genre abound, and Pringle honestly gets to them. As in “All the President’s Men,” he has a secret source with a cool nickname who provides invaluable inside information: a senior USC official he identifies as “Tommy Trojan.” And like in the Spotlight movie, Pringle becomes part of a team of reporters who work tirelessly to unravel a web of corruption that is destroying the lives of the weak and vulnerable.

Pringle had already written several exposés about USC when a tip about Puliafito fell into his lap in 2016. Puliafito, then 65, had booked a room in a Pasadena hotel for a drug spree with his 21-year-old girlfriend. When the woman overdosed, a manager at the hotel called 911. She was rescued, but the manager was furious that neither the Pasadena Police Department nor USC seemed interested in investigating the matter.

It takes a lot of dogged reporting to uncover the truth of the Puliafito story, and Pringle describes it all in meticulous detail. Maybe a little too much. Few books have ever managed to convey just how tedious and frustrating investigative reporting can really be: there’s phone call after phone call, repeated property and criminal record checks revealing nada, multiple trips across town to get to the Knocking on the door of a potential source ends with bupkis. Pringle is blocked by the Pasadena Police Department and of course USC, but still manages to come up with a strong potential cover story.

"Bad City: Danger and Power in the City of Angeles," by Paul Pringle.

Enter Maharaj, the newsroom villain who was then both editor-in-chief and publisher of The Times. After several low-level editors cleared Pringle’s story for publication, Maharaj called him to his office. Pringle is not hopeful. Maharaj is close with then-President of USC, CL Max Nikias. Like a crime family boss using a coded language threat, Maharaj actually reminds Pringle of all the favors he has done for him (including granting Pringle leave during a family death), and then announces, “This we will not publish this story.”

(In a recent Times article on Pringles’ book, Maharaj called the suggestion that management wanted to protect USC “ridiculous,” adding, “I and the other honorable managing editors who worked with me would never allow that to happen any person or entity, including USC, dictate every aspect of our reporting.” His former No. 2, Marc Duvoisin, called the plot of “Bad City” “a myth” and said retraction letters had been served on the publisher.)

When city editor Matt Lait hears that Maharaj Pringles story doesn’t want to be published like this, he suggests they do a final run around the top of the Times: Lait secretly brings in more reporters to gather additional evidence to back the Dean’s story to make invulnerable. To do this, the reporters must use cloak and dagger to keep Maharaj and Duvoisin from finding out. The reporters avoid using their company emails and meet in empty offices and other places where Maharaj, Duvoisin and their “allies” will not see them. Pringle and his colleagues are conducting “the kind of covert insurrection against corporate governance that we’ve reported on in other industries.”

As Pringle and his colleagues produce a new story, once again defaced by Maharaj and Duvoisin, they consider the journalistic equivalent of a sit-in: removing their name lines from the story, an act that would send a clear message of protest to the rest of the Editorial staff.

For Pringle, this sad situation has an added journalistic tragedy; it reflects a power shift in which USC has eclipsed the Los Angeles Times in the city’s power hierarchy. Once upon a time, the Times newsroom was so cash-rich that its employees nicknamed it “the velvet coffin.” (You paid so well you’d stay until you died.) But by 2016, the Times’ staff had dwindled from 1,200 journalists to 400, while USC had grown into one of Southern California’s largest employers. “A balance of power that had existed for generations between USC and The Times had been eroded – to the point that it was tipped in USC’s favour,” Pringle writes.

But all newspapers, big and small, are wary of the powerful players in their own backyards. Back in the late 1980s, when I was a humble night reporter and The Times was peaking at over 1 million, I overheard a group of the paper’s top investigative journalists engaged in a newsroom battle similar to Evil City.” Faced with an editor-in-chief who insisted on excising key elements from an exposé about Mayor Tom Bradley, the writers stood by my computer terminal and whispered, “We could tell them we’re removing our name lines from the story.”

Undeterred, Pringle and his colleagues continue their reporting, delving deeper into the pathetic world of petty criminals that Puliafito has delved into. They uncover the identity of the 21-year-old woman manipulating Puliafito; she is hopelessly addicted, the doctor also provides her with medication in rehab. Crystal meth is used just as much in Bad City as in Breaking Bad, and they also share some dark comedy (with nuances of Denis Johnson’s fiction). However, Pringle describes it all in the hard-nosed tone of “Dragnet”. In one particularly outrageous scene, Puliafito brings two addicts into his office at the Keck School of Medicine, where they don the doctor’s USC lab coat and inflatable Trojan hat after smoking heroin.

In the end, the reporters’ stubbornness led to the publication of the story and numerous follow-up actions – contributing to a major upset at The Times, the book claims. Maharaj and Duvoisin are fired, although the newspaper’s then-company owner – Tronc – denies their departure was linked to the way they handled Pringles’ reporting. The Times’ crises continued until the paper passed to Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong is sold. And USC continues to rule much of the city.

With Bad City, Pringle has provided us with a book that shows how power works in Los Angeles, a city where a new breed of film noir corruption is thriving in our tech-economy landscape. It’s a city where the privileged do whatever it takes to protect their friends and allies, and where small bands of insurgents work tirelessly to expose their behavior.

Tobar is the author of the novel The Last Great Road Bum. Review: “Bad City,” story behind Paul Pringle’s USC expose

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