LA Times' USC story is a real talker

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The Los Angeles Times investigation into the secret drug life of USC's former medical school dean has been (unscientifically, I admit) the most talked-about Los Angeles story since it broke Monday morning. In the works for many months, the story lays out skillfully and convincingly how Dr. Carmen A. Puliafito, an eye surgeon who was then dean of the Keck School of Medicine and a prolific rainmaker of donations and talent for USC, smoked meth and took other drugs with a skeevy crowd in Pasadena that included a prostitute 40 years younger than him. The doctor brought his druggie friends to his USC office, allegedly prescribed inhalers to soothe their smoked-out throats, and let videos and photos be taken of their partying together. The secret life only began to come to light after the prostitute overdosed in Puliafito's presence in a Pasadena hotel room, following a couple of failed attempts by her to get off drugs. She survived and talked to the Times for the story.

Monday's main story bore five reporter bylines: Paul Pringle, Harriet Ryan, Adam Elmahrek, Matt Hamilton and Sarah Parvini. Here are a few of their nut grafs:

The Times interviewed six people who partied with Puliafito in Pasadena, Huntington Beach and Las Vegas, as well as at USC. They ranged in age from late teens to late thirties. None were USC students.

One, Sarah Warren, was the woman who overdosed in the Pasadena hotel room. She told The Times she met Puliafito in early 2015 while working as a prostitute. She said they were constant companions for more than a year and a half, and that Puliafito used drugs with her and sometimes brought her and other members of their circle to the USC campus after hours to party.

“He would say, ‘They love me around here. The medical students think I am God,’” Warren said.

USC and Puliafito both refused to comment for the story: deny, confirm, explain, anything. He stepped down abruptly as dean in March 2016, a few weeks after Warren's overdose. But he remained on the USC faculty — just this past Saturday, the Times reports, he spoke at a Keck-sponsored program at the Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena — "one of the hotels Sarah Warren said she frequented with him." Boom. I'll note here that the hotel where Warren OD'd (on a March afternoon) was the Hotel Constance on Colorado Boulevard.

I gave the investigation big props in my LA Observed segment on KCRW on Monday (4:44 p.m. every Monday.) I liked how the reporters were transparent about what they knew and what they didn't. Mostly they did know. The story also explained how the whole thing began for the paper: "It was a tip about the incident in the Pasadena hotel that led The Times to discover Puliafito’s other life."

After stonewalling the first day, USC officials said late Monday that Puliafito would no longer see patients at USC facilities. On Tuesday, USC president C. L. Max Nikias sent a letter to the campus saying that “we understand the frustrations expressed about this situation...[and] we are working to determine how we can best prevent these kinds of circumstances moving forward.” Adding to the intrigue, Pasadena police did not write a report on the hotel overdose and tried at first to put the Times off the story. An officer has been disciplined, the story says.

The first place I saw the story getting big reaction was among investigative journalists on Twitter, particularly those who pursue stories in the health field (and ex-LA Times reporters):

On Tuesday the Columbia Journalism Review said the Times investigation "highlights local news that gets results." Excerpt:

The Los Angeles Times’s investigation into the troubling behavior of Dr. Carmen A. Puliafito—dean of USC’s Keck School of Medicine, renowned eye surgeon, and key fundraiser—managed to break through the national conversation percolating with news out of DC by engaging in that most honorable tradition in local journalism: taking on a powerful institution and getting results....

Five Times reporters—Paul Pringle, Harriet Ryan, Adam Elmahrek, Matt Hamilton, and Sarah Parvini—contributed to the story, an impressive allocation of resources for a paper that has faced difficulties both financial and internal in recent years. They contacted witnesses, dug through police reports and emergency call records, and gained access to video evidence, producing a 4,000-word story that resulted in Puliafito no longer seeing patients and disciplinary action for a Pasadena police officer who failed to report the hotel overdose of Puliafito’s companion.

While the salacious details of the story no doubt helped propel its reach, the Times reporters deserve credit for delivering local news that packs a punch. Beyond the work of those five journalists, the paper’s investment of time and resources into the investigation is commendable. At CJR, we dedicated our most recent print issue to local news in all its successes, failures, and experimentations. It’s nice to have a story break through that highlights the value of what a well-supported group of reporters can accomplish when they get a tip about a powerful institution and are given free rein to chase it down.

Yep. And it should be noted, for those who have bought into the lazy and false narrative that reporters at big American newspapers carry out some agenda of their corporate owners, the Times has plenty of partnerships with USC. The editor of the paper is also the publisher who deals with USC on non-journalistic things like the annual Festival of Books. No matter: when a tip on a good story came up, the newsroom got the go-ahead and the resources to chase it. That's how it's supposed to work.

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