Book: Bad City
Author: Paul Pringle
Publisher: Celadon Books
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Synopsis: “On a cool, overcast afternoon in April 2016, a salacious tip arrived at the Los Angeles Times that reporter Paul Pringle thought should have taken, at most, a few weeks to check out: a drug overdose at a fancy hotel involving one of the University of Southern California’s shiniest stars – Dr. Carmen Puliafito, the head of the prestigious medical school. Pringle, who’d long done battle with USC and its almost impenetrable culture of silence, knew reporting the story wouldn’t be a walk in the park. USC is one of the largest private employers in the city of L.A. and it cast a long shadow.
But what he couldn’t have foreseen was that this tip would lead to the unveiling of not one major scandal at USC but two, wrapped in a web of crimes and cover-ups. The rot rooted out by Pringle and his colleagues at the Times would creep closer to home than they could have imagined – spilling into their own newsroom.
Pack with details never before disclosed, Bad City goes behind the scenes to reveal how Pringle and his fellow reporters triumphed over the city’s debased institutions, in a narrative that reads like L.A. noir. This is L.A. at its darkest and investigative journalism at its brightest.”
Review: I have to say, I feel like a bit of a schmuck giving a Pulitzer Prize winning author 4.5 out of 5 stars, but here we are. I want to start by disclosing that I did not finish this book, though I got 232 pages into it’s 270 pages of narrative and perhaps I could have finished it given how far I’d come, but boy did this one weigh on me. Let’s start by identifying the content warnings, because I’m not sure we can delve into a book based solely around drug abuse without first talking about what the book details. Bad City describes, often in detail, the supply and abuse of drugs by a person in power, the supply and abuse of drugs as a means of power and control, prostitution, both with and without drug abuse, sexual abuse, and sexual assault. It’s likely and possible that there are further warnings I should give you, as I stopped reading when we got to a section on blatant sexual abuse, medical misconduct, and USC’s history of enabling such behavior from its staff members.
This is one of those books that makes you want to rip your hair out, or rip pages out, or both maybe, while you scream at the top of your lungs. It is infuriating to read about how people in power work so hard to enable others within their sphere to do detrimental harm to those with less power and resources. It’s infuriating to see the struggle of someone who’s working to uncover the truth, particularly when their work is blocked at every turn. It’s infuriating to read this knowing that this is perhaps indicative of most major news networks through the country, wondering what else we aren’t privy to because people in power are using their seemingly unlimited resources and connections to tamp down any bit of truth. Carmen Puliafito, the former dean of USC’s medical school, behaved in a way that indicated he believed he was above the law. Pringle discovered that Puliafito had allowed himself, and even instigated, to be filmed in the presence of drugs and even using drugs (meth, I believe, but Pringle also uncovered that he was using heroin as well) all while he was not only leading future medical professionals, but continuing to operate, as a world-renown ophthalmologist. The head of USC was alerted to this danger, as were the editors of the Times and not one single person in these positions of power thought it was more important to ensure the safety of everyone involved by removing Puliafito than it was to uphold an image.
I gave this book half a star less than a 5 because it’s one of those books that has so many characters, some of whom share the same first name, most of whom have intricate job titles and functions within the newsroom, that in order for it to remain clear there needs to be a list of individuals and their relation to the story and/or narrator at the beginning of the book. There were times where Pringle would refer to someone exclusively by their last name within the newsroom, but would share email correspondences with them where their first name was used and things got confusing. I gave up on figuring out who some of the players in this story were about halfway through because I wasn’t sure when they’d been introduced in order to flip back and forth to figure out what role they were playing. While the majority of what I read was hard hitting and pointed, the name and occupation confusion definitely muddied the waters.
The synopsis indicates there are previously unreported aspects to this story that are only revealed with the publishing of Bad City and nothing about that was surprising to me as I read through it. This book, in fact, was not an advanced reader copy – the copy I got, while it arrived prior to the official publication date of July 19, is a final corrected version of the story. We were asked to write our reviews prior to the publication date, and I think there’s a lot said in those details alone. Pringle’s own editors were fired by the time all of the details about Puliafito and USC went live, some two years after the initial tip came across Pringle’s desk – their severance was preceded by an internal investigation that spanned a vast majority of senior management within the Times. There were many details Pringle was unable to publish at the time the story broke, due completely to the work of his editors who had close ties to USC.
I found myself fascinated by the inner workings and convoluted network of people who both graduated from USC and work to run the city of L.A. From city officials to the LAPD, the network of deception and rot spreads far and wide. While Pringle’s reporting was able to uncover important aspects of the network, I suspect we will never fully understand just how far reaching its roots run. I will say, there was something vindicating about finding out that the bad guys were sniffed out and got what was coming to them in terms of being fired and, in Puliafito’s case, losing his license to practice. While it’s so satisfying to see the corruption come into the light and the players involved get exactly what they had coming, all the things they thought they were so powerful and wealthy they could avoid, it doesn’t make up for the fact that in reading this book we still had to undergo reading the details.
Advice: If you like a good true crime story that doesn’t involve murder, this is a great read for you. It’s scandalous and corrupt and gives a detailed look behind the scenes of the investigation that uncovers the truth behind USC’s involvement in Carmen Puliafito’s career, resignation, and coverup. The synopsis was correct, this book reads like an L.A. noir and if that’s your jam then you’ll probably love Bad City. If you’re sick of seeing the bad guys get away with everything they think they can get away with then you’ll probably find this book satisfying and vindicating. If, however, you read through the content warning at the beginning of the review and felt like this might be too much, I can all but guarantee that it will be. Tread lightly here if you’re feeling overwhelmed already, this book is dark and heavy and a little too real.