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John Hollenhorst Reporting ...A tabloid article that made scandalous accusations about Elizabeth Smart's family, has been publicly disowned by the very newspaper that published it.
The National Enquirer today admitted the story was untruthful. And expressed regret in a joint statement with the Smart family.
But this embarrassing media episode is also having repercussions in one of Utah's largest newsrooms.
The National Enquirer story was published last year, at the peak of the media frenzy about Elizabeth Smart's disappearance.
It's now been revealed that two Salt Lake Tribune reporters provided much of the unverified gossip that went into the article, and apparently received a hefty fee from the tabloid.
The Smart family deliberately shared their grief with the nation last summer, seeking as much publicity as possible.
One side effect was a tabloid frenzy. The National Enquirer ran a shockingly detailed story under this headline: "Secret Diary Exposes Family Sex Ring."
CHRIS THOMAS/SMART FAMILY SPOKESMAN: "THE PRESS IS A TWO-EDGE SWORD. IT HELPED GREATLY IN FINDING ELIZABETH. BUT THERE WAS ANOTHER EDGE THAT CUT AT THE FAMILY."
The family retained a lawyer who presumably used the threat of a lawsuit to negotiate the joint statement issued today.
The National Enquirer now agrees the article was "inaccurate and false..." and "regrets any embarrassment or harm" the article may have caused to the Smart family.
CHRIS THOMAS/SMART FAMILY SPOKESMAN: "IT CLEARS THE FAMILY'S NAME. IN ESSENCE, THERE WAS FALSE AND DEFAMATORY INFORMATION THAT WAS REPORTED ABOUT THE FAMILY, AND THIS RESOLUTION STRIKES THAT FROM THE PUBLIC RECORD."
Yesterday, the Salt Lake Tribune's editor told readers that two of his reporters were secret sources of material for the Enquirer article.
Kevin Cantera and Michael Vigh were a constant presence at Smart family news conferences. According to the rival Deseret News, Cantera and Vigh were paid 20,000 dollars by the Enquirer to share information, gossip and rumors, which apparently wound up in the Enquirer without proper fact-checking.
Media ethics expert Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in Florida calls it " a case of incredibly bad judgement" and a "pretty serious hit to (the Tribune's) credibility."
The Tribune's editor, Jay Shelledy, evidently hoped to restore credibility by airing the episode in print and publicly chastising his reporters for violating Tribune policy. Working with the Enquirer, Shelledly wrote, was "akin to drinking water out of a toilet bowl -- Dumb, distasteful and, when observed, embarrassing."
The Smart's clearly hope the settlement with the Enquirer will send a message.
CHRIS THOMAS/SMART FAMILY SPOKESMAN: "WHAT THE SMARTS ARE SAYING THROUGH THIS IS THAT THEY'RE NOT GOING TO SIT IDLY BY WHILE OTHERS INVADE THEIR PRIVACY OR COMPROMISE THE FAMILY'S GOOD NAME. AND THEY WILL BE VIGILANT IN MONITORING COVERAGE AND WILL TAKE ACTION AS APPROPRIATE."
No one from the Salt Lake Tribune returned our calls today.
But the two reporters have been placed on a year's probation, and will likely be taken off the Smart story.
The Smart family says local law enforcement people also provided information to the Enquirer.
But the FBI and Salt Lake Police say no specific informants have been brought to their attention, and no one has been disciplined.