Tribune Fires Reporters Involved in Tabloid Flap

Tribune Fires Reporters Involved in Tabloid Flap

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The Salt Lake Tribune said Tuesday it fired two reporters who were paid $20,000 for collaborating with the National Enquirer on an Elizabeth Smart story.

Reporters Michael Vigh and Kevin Cantera split $20,000 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 The story has since been retracted as part of a settlement between the Smart family and the tabloid.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, Tribune editor James E. Shelledy said Vigh and Cantera misled the newspaper when they initially told Shelledy about their involvement with the tabloid.

While the reporters originally said they had provided the tabloid with a "roadmap" of the investigation, Shelledy said he had since learned they provided a much larger part of the story.

The firings were announced a day after the Enquirer demanded a retraction for Shelledy's Sunday column in the Tribune, which suggested Vigh and Cantera had merely given the tabloid unconfirmed rumors.

"I feel saddened and angry that these two reporters damaged themselves, their colleagues and the reputation of the Tribune with their conduct," Shelledy said, adding that his trust in the reporters "was betrayed."

"The reporters told us a different story than we found out later to be true so they were terminated," said Dean Singleton, Tribune publisher and president of the newspaper's owner, MediaNews Group Inc.

Vigh and Cantera, the lead reporters on the Smart story, didn't tell Shelledy of their dealings with the Enquirer until last week, when they offered to resign. Shelledy used his regular Sunday column to explain the situation to readers.

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

An Enquirer reporter's taped conversation between him and Cantera proves the Tribune reporters misled Shelledy about their dealings with the tabloid, Enquirer editor-in-chief David Perel said Tuesday. The reporters told the tabloid they could vouch for the accuracy of the information they gave, Perel said.

Alan Butterfield, the Enquirer reporter who brokered the deal with Vigh and Cantera, played for The Associated Press two very brief portions of a taped telephone interview with Cantera made the day after the three agreed to work together -- and 11 days after Elizabeth's abduction.

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.

Cantera was unaware the call was being recorded, Butterfield said.

Butterfield said he talked with Vigh and Cantera several times about the July 2 story. He refused to say whether they worked with him on other stories.

The two were told their names would be kept out of the story.

"They knew that their information was going to be used. They were very pointed in saying this was dead on," Butterfield said.

Vigh and Cantera "named their price" to the tabloid, Perel said.

Shelledy said he decided to fire the reporters after he was told by the Enquirer about the tape 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.

The tabloid article was published about a month after Elizabeth, then 14, was abducted at knifepoint from her bedroom. Elizabeth was found with her alleged captors, Brian Mitchell and Wanda Barzee, on March 12 in a Salt Lake City suburb.

The Enquirer, meanwhile, is mulling legal action against the Tribune, saying Shelledy's column misrepresented how the Enquirer got the story and wrongly implied that the Tribune reporters had merely provided unsubstantiated rumors.

In his column, Shelledy said Vigh and Cantera relayed the 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."

The tabloid sent a letter to the Tribune Monday demanding a retraction.

"We will not settle for anything less," Perel said. "They are still not being truthful with themselves or the readers."

Shelledy's statement Tuesday said the reporters' initial denials that they were not key sources for the tabloid's story are no longer credible.

"In light of these 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."

Cantera and Vigh were quoted by the Tribune Tuesday as saying that they plan to give the money to charity, though they no longer have it in hand.

"At some point, I would like to give it to the Center for Missing (and Exploited) Children," Cantera said. "But I haven't done that yet, so I guess it sounds pretty lame to say it."

Vigh, 32, has been a police and courts reporter for the Tribune since 1998. Cantera, 34, had been a police reporter since 2000.

Cantera did not immediately return a call seeking comment. Vigh's home phone number has been disconnected.

Ed Smart, Elizabeth's father, told The Associated Press that the family had no intention of getting the reporters fired.

"All our purpose is to see that Elizabeth is protected and doesn't end up going though what the family previously went through," he said. "We just feel that it's important for the people to act responsibly."

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

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