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Staff Criticizes Tribune's Handling of Tabloid Scandal

Staff Criticizes Tribune's Handling of Tabloid Scandal

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Salt Lake Tribune staffers and its publisher have criticized the newspaper's original handling of two reporters -- now fired -- who each got $10,000 for collaborating with the National Enquirer on an Elizabeth Smart story.

Reporters Michael Vigh and Kevin Cantera received the money for their help on a July 2 Enquirer story headlined "Utah Cops: Secret Diary Exposes Family Sex Ring." The story has since been retracted as part of a settlement between the Smart family and the tabloid.

In a statement announcing the firings Tuesday, Tribune editor James E. Shelledy said that Vigh and Cantera were misleading when they initially told Shelledy about their involvement with the tabloid. His statement was published in Wednesday's edition.

He said they indicated they provided the tabloid only a "roadmap" of the investigation, but he has since learned they provided a much larger part of the story.

The reporters' involvement with the Enquirer was made public in Shelledy's Sunday column, which suggested Vigh and Cantera had merely given the tabloid unconfirmed rumors.

Shelledy originally said that he refused their resignations, but put them on a year of probation, banned them from freelance work, pulled them off the Smart story and told them they would be fired if their version of their Enquirer dealings proved untrue.

A statement signed by 43 Tribune editors and reporters and published in Wednesday's edition said that Shelledy's column had characterized the reporters' conduct as distasteful and a violation of the paper's policy on freelancing.

"We believe it goes beyond that," the staff statement said. "We believe what they did violates the basic tenets of journalism."

The staffers said, "We are committed to the highest standards of integrity, and, to the extent our credibility has been damaged, we will work to repair it."

That also was the vow of Tribune publisher Dean Singleton, vice chairman and chief executive officer of the newspaper's owner, MediaNews Group Inc.

"When I heard the full facts of the story, I felt like I was going to vomit," Singleton told the Tribune from Seattle, where he was attending a gathering of the Newspaper Association of America. "I'm hurt by this, angered by it and embarrassed by it. And we will do whatever it takes to win back the community's trust."

Singleton also was critical of the initial handling of the situation.

"No, I don't think it was handled well," he said. "I'm not going to point fingers at anybody. When somebody tells you something that is not true, it's hard to defend against that. I think Jay believed them which subsequently turned out not to be true."

Shelledy said he decided to fire the reporters after he was told by the Enquirer about a tape of an Enquirer reporter's interview last year with Cantera and confronted Cantera.

"He said that he probably hadn't come clean on everything," Shelledy said.

Vigh was fired "because he could not guarantee us that his recollection of what transpired with the Enquirer reporter is the same as he said was true last week," Shelledy said in the statement.

Alan Butterfield, the Enquirer reporter who brokered the deal with Vigh and Cantera, played for The Associated Press two very brief portions of the interview that he said was taped without Cantera's knowledge.

In one of the clips, Butterfield is heard asking Cantera to make sure the Tribune did not scoop the Enquirer on the story. Cantera responded by saying he would push for the Tribune to publish the story, but that the newspaper would likely reject it.

"My editors are a different story. They're real lightweights sometimes," he said.

In the other exchange, Butterfield asked, "Everything you told me last night, you're solid on?"

"Oh yeah," Cantera answered.

The Enquirer has demanded a retraction of Shelledy's Sunday column, which the Enquirer contends misrepresented how it got the story and wrongly implied that the Tribune reporters had merely provided unsubstantiated rumors.

Shelledy's statement Tuesday said that in light of the developments, "the observation in my column last Sunday about the composite role of Vigh and Cantera in this controversy, upon whose version it was based, stands corrected."

Shelledy said he did not plan any retraction beyond that statement.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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