How We Got the Story: Geoffrey Cowan Facilitates Conversation with the LA Times about the former Keck Medicine Dean

Four months after the former dean of USC’s medical school was found to have been using drugs and keeping company with prostitutes and criminals, the Los Angeles Times reporters who broke the story visited the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism to talk about their reporting, as well as the broader impact of investigative journalism.

Matt Hamilton and Sarah Parvini, who both graduated from Annenberg before going to work for the Times, participated in a forum moderated by CCLP Director Geoffrey Cowan on Tuesday in Wallis Annenberg Hall. Together with Times journalists Paul Pringle, Adam Elmahrek and Harriet Ryan, Hamilton and Parvini spent months following up on leads and interviewing sources to release their story on former Keck School of Medicine Dean Carmen Puliafito in July.

The story sent shockwaves through much of the USC community, as follow-up reporting revealed that faculty and employees at Keck had filed complaints about Puliafito over his repeated drinking and aggressive behavior. President C. L. Max Nikias acknowledged that his office received a call notifying him of Puliafito’s presence in a Pasadena hotel room where a young woman overdosed on drugs, but said that the report never reached him personally. And an investigation by the Medical Board of California found that Puliafito, an eye doctor, had treated patients within hours of using methamphetamines.

At Tuesday’s event, Interim Journalism Director Gordon Stables introduced the speakers and lauded Hamilton and Parvini’s reporting as “accountability journalism,” saying that it’s more important than ever at a time when quick, viral news is in demand. Cowan added that he welcomed reporting that kept USC accountable as well.

“I am so proud of those stories and the fact that so much of this great work was done by graduates of our school,” Cowan said.

Hamilton touched on this topic in response to an audience question about balancing his relationship with the Trojan Family with his commitment to fair, in-depth reporting. He said that in this case, their connection to USC wasn’t a concern, because they knew that publishing the story was necessary.

“You have to weigh any sense of loyalty to the University with the real harm that could be going on,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton and Parvini credited Pringle, who received a tip about the overdose in Pasadena, with the initial reporting, and said that they came on later to flesh out the story with additional interviews and evidence. Parvini pointed out that they were able to identify the woman who overdosed, partially because of digital tools like a reverse Google search, and came to the rehab center where she was staying to try to interview her.

Parvini explained that figuring out how to approach the source was an added challenge, as the reporters had to decide whether she or Pringle would try to talk to her.

“Would this person respond better to a sort of father figure, or would she feel more comfortable opening up to someone she sees as a peer?” Parvini asked.

The woman, identified by the Times as Sarah Warren, eventually did talk to the reporters, and they were able to flesh out a better picture of what Puliafito’s relationship with her was like. However, in response to an audience question about talking to unwilling sources, Parvini said that many sources were initially hesitant to speak.

“It’s tough when you’re trying to find someone to talk to and they don’t want to do it,” Parvini said. “We’ve run into that a lot, and if one person straight-up says no even though you’ve gone to their house and called them and sent them emails, you need to find someone else who has similar information.”

When the reporters approached the USC administration with what they had learned, Pringle, Hamilton and Parvini were repeatedly rebuffed, and USC did not put out a statement about Puliafito until after the Times story was published. Hamilton said that the administration had a “standing invitation” to give an interview to the Times.

“I still have two questions: What did the USC administration know about this man’s behavior, and when did they know it?” Parvini said.

Hamilton added that running into a lack of transparency doesn’t have to signal the end of a story, and that journalists should keep pushing to reveal the truth despite the obstacles.

“If you’re pursuing something and the organization isn’t being transparent, you make that the story,” Hamilton said. “Put them to the test and hold them accountable for that reason — that’s your job as a journalist.”