Five years ago, Paul Pringle and Matthew Doig were on the same team. Mr. Pringle, a veteran reporter for the Los Angeles Times, and Mr. Doig, the newspaper’s editor, were working on an article that would eventually 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 journalists in 2019.
Behind the scenes, however, there was bad blood. Last week, Mr Pringle published a book, ‘Bad City’, which in part claimed that senior Times editors, including Mr Doig, had tried to slow down and tone down that initial groundbreaking story , which detailed how the dean of the USC medical school used drugs with young people, including a woman who had to be rushed to hospital after an overdose.
Mr. Doig, currently the investigative editor at USA Today, hit back last week on Medium, calling Mr. Pringle a “fabulist who grossly misrepresents facts to support his false narrative.”
Just as there’s sure to be a hit song of the summer or a must-see blockbuster, the journalism industry now has a prime contender for the media controversy of the season. Over the past two weeks, reporters and editors in New York, Washington and Los Angeles have exchanged notes and debated who was right and who was wrong.
Were the editors of the Times scrupulous or were they cowards intimidated by a major city institution that had also partnered with the newspaper, notably during a book festival held on its campus? Did an investigative journalist stubbornly overcome the obstacles set up by his own newspaper, or is he going too far in shifting blame? The New York Times was even embroiled in controversy when the paper’s positive review of Mr. Pringle’s book drew criticism from Mr. Doig and others.
“I mean, it’s fun gossip, right?” said Maer Roshan, editor of Los Angeles Magazine, which published Mr. Pringle’s rebuttal to Mr. Doig’s Medium post on Monday afternoon.
Or, as Janice Min, managing director of The Ankler and former editor of Us Weekly and The Hollywood Reporter, put it, “It’s definitely summer, it’s really slow, and it’s definitely become something people talk about.”
Controversies in the Los Angeles media often don’t capture the attention of a city where the entertainment industry rules. But this dust is different.
“I think part of the reason it’s taken here in LA is that you can almost see it translated on screen in this tale of heroic crusader versus institution versus institution that kind of has echoes of great newsroom dramas that have been made by Hollywood before,” said Ms. Min, whose newsletter and podcasting network at Ankler covers entertainment. “And in that sense, I think the narrative has become very appealing to people in LA because it has a cinematic quality to it.”
To journalists in particular, it also offered a rare view into the often messy business of writing an investigative story. When Mr. Doig published his Medium article, he also published primary documents. He published early drafts of the article, along with his handwritten notes in red ink in the margins.
Often the stories that get exhaustive post-publication airplay are the ones where something went horribly wrong. But it was the rare case of getting a preview of drafts of an article that would eventually be published that proved bulletproof.
“I was intrigued because it’s not that often you see an editor go out of their way and drop draft articles,” said Bill Grueskin, a professor at Columbia University School of Journalism and a former editor. in chief of Bloomberg News, The Wall Street Journal. and the Miami Herald. “I teach a short story writing course, and this well-marked draft is going to be a great exercise for the class. It’s unusual to see an unpublished draft and then confront it with a polished, published story and see what has been changed, what has been put in place and what has been removed.
Mr Pringle objected to the length of time it took for the article to be published – he and his colleagues had filed a draft months earlier – and said the final version was “not up to par.” of an earlier version, before the editors intervened. Mr. Doig pointed out that the newspaper had published the article on the front page and that it had an immediate impact.
The storm is also hitting an age-old nerve in journalism: tensions in the editor-reporter relationship. Although the goals of both are the same – to publish a story that has an impact – their prerogatives and approach may differ.
“As an editor, you deal with writers, and writers have opinions about what news should be and how things are done,” Roshan said. “As an editor, you have responsibilities to your institution, your institution’s reputation and things like that.
“If you are sued, the magazine will pay legal fees and cover the writer,” he continued. “As a publisher, you have an additional obligation to make sure everything is going well. It’s a different kind of lens in which you approach stories.
A month after that initial story was published in July 2017, Mr. Doig was fired, along with fellow Times editors 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 because of an investigation into how they handled his USC article. Mr. Doig said he never received an explanation as to why he was fired. Mr Maharaj, who also took issue with Mr Pringle’s claims, said he was told his dismissal was part of a newsroom reorganization.
“We didn’t do anything wrong,” said Mr. Maharaj, the former editor of The Times. “We challenged him to do a much better story.”
Mr Duvoisin, who was editor of The Times, said of Mr Pringle: “There is no substance to his assertions.
In interviews, Mr. Pringle and Mr. Doig said they had been encouraged to receive many messages of support from their peers. But both men are still unhappy with the way it all turned out – and deeply convinced that they are right.
Mr Pringle said: “Handling this gaslight in my own profession. Is it pleasant? No, but it’s important work. I have to do it for the reader.
Mr. Doig said in an interview that the experience was not exactly one he relished.
“I hate it,” he said. “I would have liked to talk to you about any other media-related topics other than that.”
Mr. Doig said he was considering whether to write a sequel to his first Medium post.
“It’s an awkward position, but it’s better now that I’ve been getting emails from all corners of journalism,” he said. “It helped. But I don’t like it, and I prefer to do something else.