Five-year LA Times investigation becomes the talk of the town

Five years ago, Paul Pringle and Matthew Doig were on the same team. Mr. Pringle, a veteran Los Angeles Times reporter, and Mr. Doig, the newspaper’s editor, were working on an article that would finally expose the drug abuse of a powerful former dean of the University of Southern California.

That report would lead to a series of other investigations involving USC, culminating in a Pulitzer Prize for Mr. Pringle and two other reporters in 2019.

Behind the scenes, however, there was bad blood. Last week, Mr. Pringle published a book, “Bad City,” which, in part, claimed that the top editors of The Times, including Mr. Doig, tried to walk slowly and deface that groundbreaking early article, which detailed how the dean of the USC medical school used drugs on young people, including a woman who had to be rushed to the hospital after an overdose.

Mr. Doig, currently the investigations editor at USA Today, responded last week on Medium, calling Mr. Pringle “a fabulist who is grossly misrepresenting the facts to support his false narrative.”

Just as there’s always a song of the summer or a can’t-miss blockbuster, the journalism industry now has a prime candidate for the season’s media controversy. For the past two weeks, reporters and editors from New York, Washington and Los Angeles have been exchanging notes and debating who was right and who was wrong.

Credit…USA Today

Were the editors of The Times scrupulous, or were they cowards intimidated by a major city institution that had also partnered with the paper, including at a festival of books held on its campus? Had an investigative reporter stubbornly overcome the obstacles put in place by his own paper, or was he going too far in placing the blame? The New York Times even became embroiled in controversy when the newspaper’s positive review of Mr. Pringle’s book drew criticism from Mr. Doig and others.

“I mean, it’s a fun gossip, right?” said Maer Roshan, editor-in-chief of Los Angeles Magazine, who posted Pringle’s rebuttal to Doig’s Medium post on Monday afternoon.

Or, as Janice Min, CEO of The Ankler and former editor of Us Weekly and The Hollywood Reporter, put it, “It’s definitely summer, it’s definitely slow, and this has definitely become something people are talking about.”

Media controversies in Los Angeles often don’t get the attention of a city where the entertainment industry rules. But this fight is different.

“I think part of why it took hold here in Los Angeles is that you can see it almost translating to the screen in that story of heroic crusader versus institution versus institution that has echoes of great newsroom dramas that Hollywood has done before. said Ms Min, whose Ankler newsletter and podcast network cover entertainment. “And in that sense, I think the narrative has become really attractive to people in Los Angeles because it has a cinematic quality.”

Specifically for journalists, it also offered a rare insight into the often messy business of putting together an investigative piece. When Mr. Doig published his post on Medium, he also published primary documents. He published the initial drafts of the article, along with his handwritten notes in red ink in the margins.

Often the news reports that air extensively after publication are the ones where something went terribly wrong. But this was the rare case of taking a look at drafts of an article that would eventually be published and it turned out to be bulletproof.

“I was intrigued because it’s not that often you see an editor go all out and give up on drafts of a story,” said Bill Grueskin, a professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism and former editor of Bloomberg News, The Wall. StreetJournal. and The Miami Herald. “I teach a news editing class, and that draft that has all your marks on it will be a great exercise for the class. It’s unusual to see an unpublished draft and then compare it to a polished, published story and see what changed, what was mentioned, and what was cut.”

Credit…The Pulitzer Prizes, via Associated Press

Mr. Pringle objected to the length of time it took to publish the article (he and his colleagues had submitted a draft months earlier) and said the final version did not “meet up” to an earlier one, before the editors intervened. Mr. Doig noted that the newspaper published the article on the front page and that it had an immediate impact.

The storm also hits an age-old nerve in journalism: tensions in the editor-reporter relationship. Although the objectives of both are the same (to publish a story that has an impact), their prerogatives and approach can diverge.

“As an editor, you deal with writers, and writers have opinions about what should be news and how things are done,” Roshan said. “As a publisher, you have responsibilities to your institution, the reputation of your institution, and things like that.

“If he is sued, the magazine will pay the legal bills and cover the writer,” he continued. “As a publisher, you have an additional obligation to make sure that you will be okay. It’s a different kind of lens that you approach the stories with.”

A month after that initial article was published in July 2017, Mr. Doig was fired, along with other senior editors at The Times, Davan Maharaj and Marc Duvoisin. The company said at the time, The Times is now under different ownership, that the moves were part of a restructuring. Mr. Pringle said it was due to an investigation into how his paper was handled by USC. Mr. Doig said he was never given an explanation as to why he was fired. Maharaj, who also disputed Pringle’s claims, said he was told his firing was part of a newsroom shakeup.

“We did nothing wrong,” said Maharaj, a former editor of The Times. “We challenged him to make a much better story.”

Mr. Duvoisin, who was managing editor of The Times, said of Mr. Pringle: “His claims are baseless.”

In interviews, both Mr. Pringle and Mr. Doig said they were encouraged by receiving many messages of support from their peers. But both men are still unhappy about how it all turned out, and deeply certain that they are right.

Mr. Pringle said: “Dealing with this gaslighting in my own profession. Is that nice? No, but it’s an important job. I have to do it for the reader.”

Mr. Doig said in an interview that the experience wasn’t exactly one he liked.

“I hate it,” he said. “I wish I was talking to you about anything else related to the media, except this.”

Mr. Doig said he was weighing whether to write a follow-up to his first Medium post.

“It’s an awkward position to be in, but it’s better now that I’ve gotten emails from all corners of journalism,” he said. “That has helped. But I don’t like this, and I’d rather be doing other things.”

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