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S.L. Tribune Editor Resigns in Wake of Tabloid Flap

S.L. Tribune Editor Resigns in Wake of Tabloid Flap

Posted - May 1, 2003 at 5:06 p.m.



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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Salt Lake Tribune editor James E. Shelledy resigned Thursday, two days after two of his reporters were dismissed for lying about the sale of information to the National Enquirer in the Elizabeth Smart case.

Tribune publisher Dean Singleton, who also is vice chairman and chief executive officer of the newspaper's owner, MediaNews Group Inc., announced Shelledy's resignation after meeting with the Tribune staff Thursday afternoon.

Shelledy will remain with MediaNews Group, but it wasn't immediately clear where he was going. Bill Long, corporate editor for MediaNews, was appointed interim editor.

"I don't think the public image was that imperiled. The big shock was in the newsroom," Singleton told The Associated Press moments after the announcement.

Shelledy issued a short written statement after Thursday's meeting.

"It has become clear to me and the publisher that it will take a new editor to bring an end to the newsroom contention over what will forever be known as the Enquirer affair," the statement said. "I am tired; we both see needs for new direction."

Singleton was in Salt Lake City on Wednesday and Thursday to meet with staffers who feared the reporters' involvement with the tabloid -- and Shelledy's handling of the case -- had done serious damage to the Tribune's credibility.

Michael Vigh and Kevin Cantera sold information about Elizabeth's abduction case to a supermarket tabloid for a story that has since been retracted.

Shelledy said he fired Vigh and Cantera, who were each paid $10,000, because they misled him about the level of their involvement with the tabloid.

While the reporters told Shelledy they had given the tabloid merely a "roadmap" of the investigation, Shelledy later said the reporters provided a much larger part of the story.

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 The story has been retracted as part of a settlement between the Smart family and the tabloid.

Vigh and Cantera, the lead reporters on the Smart kidnapping, didn't tell Shelledy of their dealings with the Enquirer until last week, when they offered to resign. He refused their resignations, but put them on a year's probation and forbade them from doing any freelance work. The two also were pulled off coverage of the Smart case.

The tabloid article was published about a month after Elizabeth, then 14, was abducted at knifepoint from her bedroom. She was found March 12 in a Salt Lake suburb with two people now charged with kidnapping her.

Shelledy wrote about his reporters' involvement with the Florida-based Enquirer in his weekly column Sunday. He said Vigh and Cantera relayed rumors and "assumed the Enquirer played by mainstream rules and would consider as hearsay that which could not be confirmed, on or off the record, through police sources."

In the column, which was written before Shelledy learned of the reporters' deeper involvement, he wrote that the reporters' behavior was neither "illegal nor unethical." He likened the early version of events as akin to being caught drinking from a toilet. "Dumb, distasteful, and when observed, embarrassing."

But on Monday, the Enquirer sent a letter to the Tribune demanding a retraction for the column, saying Shelledy misrepresented how the tabloid got the story and wrongly implied the Tribune reporters had merely provided unsubstantiated rumors.

The Enquirer reporter who brokered the deal with Vigh and Cantera played the AP two brief portions of a telephone conversation with Cantera taped without the reporter's knowledge the day after the three agreed to work together.

In one of the snippets, Alan Butterfield is heard asking Cantera to make sure the Tribune did not scoop the Enquirer on the Smart details. Cantera responded by saying he would push for the Tribune to publish the story, but that the newspaper probably would reject it. "My editors are a different story. They're real lightweights sometimes," he said.

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

"Oh yeah," Cantera answered.

Shelledy said he decided to fire the reporters after he was told about the tape by the Enquirer and confronted Cantera. "He said that he probably hadn't come clean on everything," Shelledy said.

But anger lingered among Tribune reporters over the paper's handling of the case. Singleton said the episode was the worst of his newspaper career.

Vigh and Cantera are looking for work and will not appeal their firings, their attorney LeGrand Curtis said Wednesday. Curtis said he knew of no pending legal actions against the two.

"It's all a very bad incident that everyone is trying to recover from," Curtis said.

Shelledy started at The Salt Lake Tribune in 1990 after five years as publisher at the Idahonian, now The Moscow-Pullman Daily News. Prior to that, he was executive editor of the Lewiston Morning Tribune in Lewiston, Idaho.

He had been an editor and reporter at that paper before being promoted. He attended Gonzaga College in Spokane, and worked for The Spokesman-Review and The Associated Press in the early 1970s.

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

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