When the story of 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart’s abduction became national news in June 2002, Connie Coyne knew the dangers. Coyne, the reader advocate for The Salt Lake Tribune, once worked in Florida, the home base for the National Enquirer. Soon after the Smart kidnapping, she said she warned the reporters covering the story – Kevin Cantera and Michael Vigh – about the tabloid’s penchant for coming to town with checkbook in hand to tempt reporters.
Her warnings were prescient. Ten months later, in April 2003, it became national news when The Tribune revealed that Cantera and Vigh had given information to the Enquirer for a payment of $20,000.
Within days, their reporting careers ended. Tribune Editor James E. “Jay” Shelledy resigned while the newsroom reeled from the revelation. The Tribune and the Enquirer printed rare retractions, and eventually Vigh and Cantera unmasked their confidential sources to an investigating attorney.
Overshadowed by Jayson Blair’s ethical breaches at The New York Times, the story quickly faded. And now, months later, the hand wringing about the Enquirer fiasco has turned to introspection.
Vigh and Cantera were rising stars at The Tribune. As the Elizabeth Smart story broke, they had come from a whirlwind of covering Olympic security issues. They had cultivated sources who were willing to talk about the ongoing Smart investigation.
Colleagues at The Tribune suggested they were ahead of every other news source and should consider book deals. Shelledy took a personal interest in Vigh and Cantera’s work and pushed them. Shelledy said he told the pair to stay ahead of the pack and keep digging
“They were aggressive, good, solid, accurate, had good positive attitudes and self-starting. They had done great work since the first when Elizabeth Smart was taken from her home,” Shelledy said. “At the time, there wasn’t a single correction about anything they wrote about this story. You had no early warnings that anything was going to go amiss.”
National media pressured Vigh and Cantera to act as sources. Cantera and Vigh made frequent appearances on CNN and other news shows.
“Vigh and Cantera made very good TV showings,” said Shelledy. “They had good camera presence. They were good, and I think it went to their heads. … They were supplying information as a lot of papers allow.”
Cantera said he and Vigh felt they were pulling more than their fair share of front-page headlines and breaking-news stories for The Tribune during this period. He admits there was plenty of chest-thumping as they compared their work to others in the newsroom. At one point, NBC offered Cantera a $500-a-day deal to be an on-air analyst. Shelledy shot down the deal. Soon afterward, National Enquirer reporter Alan Butterfield invited the two reporters to dinner.
“(The NBC deal) was on my mind when I sat down with Butterfield,” Cantera said. “I felt I was under-rewarded and under-appreciated.”
Butterfield initially offered the reporters $100,000 to be sources for his story. After several rounds of beers and a four-hour dinner at a restaurant, the price was set at $20,000. Cantera considered the money akin to a “consulting fee.” They later told editors they only provided a “road map” for the story.
Cantera said Butterfield told them that if their information wasn’t corroborated it would never appear in print and there would be no payment. Based on that comment, Cantera believes he and Vigh were not the sole sources for the Enquirer story.
Butterfield followed the first meeting with at least one phone call. Cantera later learned that he had secretly recorded their conversations.
The Enquirer story appeared July 2, 2002, under the headline: “Utah Cops: Secret Diary Exposes Family Sex Ring.” It said that the tabloid had uncovered “a shocking gay sex scandal involving her father, Edward, and two uncles.”
Although difficult to prove, many linked the story to a decline in public participation in the search to find Elizabeth Smart. The Utah media passed on printing and airing much of the information. Vigh’s and Cantera’s deal with the Enquirer remained secret for nearly eight months.
When Elizabeth was found in a Salt Lake suburb in March 2003, the Smart family hired Utah media lawyer Randy Dryer. They wanted to stop information leaks as the trial of the pair accused of kidnapping Elizabeth grew closer.
Dryer, who frequently defends Utah reporters against legal action, learned about the deal Vigh and Cantera made with the Enquirer and asked them to divulge their sources. He was looking for law enforcement leaks. He said if the reporters didn’t turn over their police sources, he was going to tell their editor that they took money from the Enquirer. Cantera and Vigh decided to resign and take their secret with them.
‘THE PERFECT STORM’
It was April 18 – the Thursday before Easter. Shelledy had just driven 800 miles to a mountain cabin in northern Idaho when he got the phone call that would stir a small whirlwind into what Shelledy now calls the “perfect storm.”
On the other end of line, Tribune Managing Editor Tim Fitzpatrick said that reporters Vigh and Cantera, who were in his office, had just asked to resign but would not say why. Shelledy told Fitzpatrick to put the pair on the phone.
“I said ‘yes you are (going to tell).’ I reached out over the phone and ‘grabbed’ them. You’re going to tell, and you’re going to tell in the seal of confession,” Shelledy told a group of editors in June at the American Press Institute in Reston, Va.
The two eventually acquiesced and told Shelledy that an attorney for Elizabeth Smart’s family had contacted them.
Shelledy was incredulous when he heard the story.
“I was really hell bent. ‘I can’t believe you did this,’ I (Shelledy) said.”
The reporters said all they did was confirm or deny information and provide eight or nine names of people in the Police Department. Their primary confidential sources were not among the names given to the Enquirer, Shelledy said he was told. He believed them.
When they first offered to resign, Shelledy said he kept their resignations “on the table” to help protect the paper’s sources. Tribune editors told them the paper had an interest in keeping their sources and notes confidential. Shelledy also believed the reporters were worth rehabilitation.
A COMPETITIVE MISCALCULATION
Shelledy was soon back on the road to Salt Lake City from his mountain retreat. By Monday, April 21, he was in his office talking to Vigh, Cantera and Tribune attorney Michael O’Brien. Shelledy resisted prompting from top editors to print a story about the reporters’ disclosure. He said he needed more information. He also didn’t want the Deseret Morning News to get the story first.
“I was adamant that we would break our own story,” he said. “The problem with doing a story at that time was that the Smart Family was tied to the Deseret News, which was our chief rival.”
One of Elizabeth Smart’s uncles, Tom Smart, also was chief photographer at the News. Shelledy worried that the coziness between the News, which had recently changed to a morning publication competing head-to-head with The Tribune, and the Smart family connection would mean the News would have a more complete story.
His animosity toward the Deseret Morning News had also been stoked by journalistic clashes between The Tribune and its owner, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The sentiment had been punctuated during a protracted battle with the News to allow the afternoon News to switch to morning publication.
Both papers are partners in a decades-old joint operating agreement, but former Tribune owners had never agreed to allow the News to exercise a clause to publish in the morning. As part of that battle, Shelledy believed that the News helped orchestrate The Tribune’s sale from AT&T to MediaNews Group. Since taking ownership, MediaNews Group CEO Dean Singleton allowed the Deseret News to publish in the morning. Meanwhile, the former owners of the Tribune, the McCarthy family, have been attempting to buy back the newspaper since its sale to MediaNews.
“Everybody would have said – in my mind – the only reason you are doing this is because the Deseret News was going to out you,” Shelledy said. He later admitted it was unwise to let his concerns about the competition drive his decision.
In the meantime, Dryer also was attempting to settle with the Enquirer. He had discussed a retraction with them, but they were waiting to finalize the agreement until The Tribune sorted out its position with its reporters.
Worried about his rival, Shelledy decided on an alternative to a reported news story. He penned a Sunday column that he knew wouldn’t have to pass the paper’s attorney review and didn’t require an interview with the Smarts. He did, however, give a copy to Vigh and Cantera. The two reporters signed it to certify its accuracy.
The column appeared in The Sunday Tribune on April 27 – 10 days after Shelledy had first learned of the Enquirer deal. It set off a firestorm among Tribune staffers. In the column, Shelledy was short on details about the pair’s discipline and didn’t disclose how much money they’d taken. He did say the reporters would be punished with a year’s probation and prohibited from working as consultants on any Smart kidnapping book, movie or television project.
Some Tribune staffers had heard rumors about the Sunday column and got up early to read the paper. Phone calls between upset reporters filled Sunday morning. By that afternoon, The Associated Press and Reuters wires services released national stories.
The column also angered the Smart family and Dryer, who felt they had been negotiating some resolution – short of public disclosure – with The Tribune’s attorney.
In the Page A2 piece, Shelledy laid out his reasons for keeping the pair.
“Strictly speaking, talking to the National Enquirer or others of like ilk, in and of itself, is neither illegal nor unethical. Rather, it is akin to drinking water out of a toilet bowl – dumb, distasteful and, when observed, embarrassing,” Shelledy wrote.
THE FALLOUTBy Monday morning, it was evident Shelledy had poorly gauged the velocity of the gathering storm. Staff meetings and informal gatherings filled the morning. At a mid-morning staff meeting, Shelledy announced an independent investigation, and staffers began circulating the idea of a signed statement addressed to readers. It eventually ran later that week.
The column, in turn, resulted in a retraction demand from the Enquirer. The irony wasn’t lost on Salt Lake radio talk show hosts, who said it is really a bad day when The National Enquirer asks The Salt Lake Tribune for a retraction.
On Tuesday, April 29, only five minutes before Singleton was to deliver a speech to the Newspaper Association of America’s Seattle convention, he received two unsettling phone calls.
First, Shelledy called to say that Vigh and Cantera couldn’t stand by their earlier statements. He said he had fired them on the spot. He didn’t go into details.
The second call came from a reporter with the Deseret Morning News who told Singleton the Enquirer had tape recordings that proved The Tribune reporters were the primary sources for the salacious tabloid story. The News reporter had heard only snippets of the tape.
Singleton said he felt ill and faint; he wanted to throw up. He called and gave a short order to his corporate editor in New Jersey to get on a plane for Salt Lake City. He then delivered his speech to the nation’s top newspaper executives without hinting at the turmoil inside. He said he doesn’t remember delivering the speech.
“(The Tribune-Enquirer affair) was the worst breach of trust of my career,” Singleton said later.
Shelledy never listened to the tapes. The Enquirer wanted the retraction in return for releasing the tape to The Tribune, but Shelledy wouldn’t deal. Based on reports about the tape – which appeared in the News on Tuesday morning, Shelledy had called the pair into his office and, based on their response, fired them.
A NEWSROOM IN TURMOIL
Shelledy said he knew pretty early in the process how things might turn out.
“I had told my wife, ‘I don’t think we are going to survive this one,’ “ he said.
By Wednesday, April 30, Shelledy had sequestered himself in his office. Staffers were telling Singleton on the phone that he didn’t want to deal with the crisis that surrounded the Enquirer fiasco. Other thoughts crossed Shelledy’s mind.
“The final part of the perfect storm was that I was getting very tired,” he said. “Being an editor of an independent paper in (Utah’s) quasi-theocracy is interesting from both angles. Both sides think you are playing one to the other. And also it was time, frankly, to, it was just time. This thing had spun out of control. It was there by all sides coming together.”
Singleton flew in to Salt Lake City on Wednesday afternoon. He met with reporters and editors, and he said staffers told him they were looking for leadership and Shelledy wasn’t willing to address the problems.
Shelledy said that 75 percent of the newsroom supported him, but more than half of editors didn’t. Singleton called it a “crisis of confidence.”
“Throughout the day I was hearing this same drumbeat: We need to have new leadership to have a fresh start,” Singleton said. Some editors told Singleton they would leave the paper if there wasn’t a change at the top.
To Shelledy’s credit, Singleton said, he wrote his last column as an act of resignation.
“The Tribune hit an iceberg, and I was at the helm,” Shelledy’s column read. “While the Tribune is better constructed than the Titanic, we have taken on a considerable amount of water, and it will be a while before the credibility pumps right us.”
The Enquirer saga revealed something deeper about communication and management problems at The Tribune.
One reporter described The Tribune staff as a dysfunctional family directed by benevolent “daddy” (Shelledy) who picked his favorites and made head-strong decisions about coverage. Many said that the newsroom culture may have helped push the young reporters to the point where they would sell information and violate Tribune policy.
Shelledy’s mishandling of the scandal opened a door for those who didn’t like his management style. Shelledy said he had an increasing amount of baggage in the newsroom. He had violated one of his own maxims that college presidents and editors should stay only 10 years; his term lasted 12 and, as his final column noted, a total of 4,444 days.
While acknowledging some of his management faults, Shelledy remains unapologetic about playing favorites.
“If you don’t want your paper to be lethargic, you are going to end up playing favorites for aggressiveness, solid reporting, storytelling passion, diversity and good attitudes,” he told editors in June. “That sort of favoritism can segue into perceptions of discrimination pretty fast. You have got to be careful.”
He also warned to watch for newsroom factions who are waiting for editors to make a big mistake.
He is also unapologetic about his initial desire to rehabilitate Vigh and Cantera, who he described as “swashbuckling.” He felt they were redeemable, despite the fact that they violated Tribune policy – until information on the secret tapes appeared.
The management team reluctantly went along with Shelledy’s initial instinct to trust the reporters, his efforts to protect the reporters’ sources from being named, and his initial efforts to control the publication of the information – to keep a tight circle of those who knew about their actions.
“He was sandbagged by his heart,” said Ted Pease, professor and head of the Department of Communication at Utah State University.
While many staffers credit Shelledy with raising journalistic standards at the newspaper, not many appreciated his brash management style. Many saw that style as a character flaw that influenced his last major decisions at The Tribune. Many were particularly angered that he turned away suggestions from top editors to write a balanced news story about Vigh and Cantera, rather than publishing a column about the affair.
POLICY OUT OF STEP?
Some have used the ethical lapse to question other Tribune policies. For example, some pointed at possible violations of the newspaper’s rule on the use of confidential sources that reads, “Anonymous sources may not make direct or serious allegations of wrongdoing in stories without the editor’s specific approval.”
Restrained by legal agreement, Cantera was unwilling to discuss his sources. Editors directly involved in the supervision of these stories were satisfied that the unnamed sources used by Vigh and Cantera were legitimate, in a position to know what they were speaking about and acting independently of one another.
Media attorney Dryer finds it odd that editors aren’t required to know who sources are, calling the policy “out of step” with those at many news organizations.
ETHICAL BREACH OR BAD JUDGMENT?
The same day Shelledy resigned, SPJ Ethics Chair Gary Hill e-mailed the Society’s ethics listserv questioning how Vigh and Cantera could have chosen to become “sources” in the middle of an unfolding story. It turned out to be SPJ’s national Ethics Week.
“The question to me is not did they violate the (SPJ) Code of Ethics, but in how many different ways,” he wrote. “They did not meet appropriate standards for sources, they did not attempt to minimize harm, they did not respect this private family’s right to privacy, (arguable given the public furor over the disappearance) and they did not act independently, especially ‘remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.’ “
Shelledy thought enough of Cantera’s work that he got him on an ethics panel at SPJ’s regional conference in Cedar City, Utah this past April. The topic: coverage of the Elizabeth Smart case. For those who see irony in that, Cantera balked against allegations that he breached ethics and dislikes comparisons to Jayson Blair. He admitted his mistake, but only attributes it to a lapse in judgment. He said his news reporting stands up to scrutiny.
“(Journalism is a) field without a real set of rules. A lot is open to interpretation,” he said. “From the start, we weren’t told we had done anything unethical. I don’t understand how that could change. Suddenly, because of public relations, we are guilty of an ethical breach.”
In the aftermath of The Tribune imbroglio, Singleton personally apologized to the Smart family and community leaders. He asked longtime MediaNews editor Nancy Conway to lead The Tribune. When she began in June, Conway became the first female editor in The Salt Lake Tribune’s 132-year history. Conway was executive editor of the MediaNews Group chain’s ANG Newspapers in northern California.
In addition, a team from the Poynter Institute spent time discussing ethical issues with Tribune staff members. The paper, with the assistance of Poynter, created a media ethics policy for the newsroom. Singleton said The Tribune’s previous policy had no teeth because of Shelledy’s arbitrary application.
Cantera, who’s had a hard time finding any work since the fiasco, says he’s been jaded by some of the journalistic hypocrisy he sees. Having lived by the pen, his journalism career may have ended by it.
“I have got a real bad taste in my mouth about what journalism has done to me,” Cantera said. “I got to see it from the other side.”
The allegation that he and Vigh lied to editors is the most bitter for Cantera to swallow. He said he still stands by the version of events first presented to editors. He said he didn’t mislead them. Nonetheless, he says the allegations of lies have kept him from finding another job – except some work as a private investigator.
Cantera regrets releasing the names of sources. Within hours of their termination at The Tribune, they were talking to Dryer.
“We were two drowning men. Dryer was throwing us a life preserver. I shouldn’t have let Dryer intimidate me,” Cantera said.
With few prospects for employment and thoughts about returning to graduate school to study history, Cantera said the $10,000 from the Enquirer was hardly worth the price he’s paid.
The Enquirer retracted parts of its story after Dryer forced its hand. Dryer also released transcripts of information and sources from Vigh and Cantera to local prosecutors revealing police sources. Prosecutors never filed charges against any law enforcement officer as a result of the information.
Inside the newsroom, veteran Tribune political reporter Dan Harrie sees a staff that has endured much. A change in a centurylong ownership, reorganization of the newsroom, the Enquirer scandal, and the change in top editors has taken its toll.
“They (staffers) have been remarkably resilient,” Harrie said.
Joel Campbell is an assistant professor in the Department of Communications at Brigham Young University and SPJ’s FOI Committee co-chair. He is a former editor and reporter at the (Salt Lake City) Deseret News.