Fragged | News | Salt Lake City Weekly


How the Trib scandal mixed ethics with newsroom politics—and brought down the editor.

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Jay Shelledy was still holding court. Only a few hours removed from writing his farewell column and handing his resignation to publisher Dean Singleton, the very recently former editor of The Salt Lake Tribune was perched at the table of his eastside home, sharing stories and beers with about a dozen of his most loyal staffers. For a wake, the mood was jovial. And for a fall guy, Jay Shelledy seemed an unlikely candidate, especially since he had his boss’ implicit support from the very beginning of the National Enquirer scandal.

It’s easy to criticize Shelledy for the way he handled Michael Vigh and Kevin Cantera. The two Tribune reporters approached him on April 17 with an admission that they had sold information to The National Enquirer pertaining to the Elizabeth Smart case and offered to resign. Shelledy’s first mistake was not taking them up on it. Based on the lies the reporters fed him, Shelledy didn’t think what Cantera and Vigh had done was grounds for immediate termination. His second mistake was not following the reporters’ suggestion that he assign a Tribune reporter to cover the soon-to-be scandal as a news story. He instead decided to write about the impropriety in an April 27 column. His third mistake was straight out of a Sophocles play—exhibiting his typical hubris, he decided to back the two golden boys he had handpicked and crafted into bulldog reporters.

Like Vigh and Cantera, Shelledy paid for his mistakes with his job. He cleaned out his office, threw away the extra business cards and took his home telephone off the hook. Meanwhile, Singleton launched into frenzied damage control, pledging to restore his paper’s credibility and promising that things were going to change around here. Amid all the tearful apologies to the Smart family and the meetings with angry Tribune staffers, nobody pointed out that the grenade blew up in Singleton’s face, too. Nobody called for Dean Singleton’s mea culpa for mismanaging the episode just as poorly as the editor he is now looking to replace. Nobody sent a letter around the Tribune newsroom accusing Dean Singleton of letting folks off the hook too easily.

But Singleton didn’t emerge unscathed. By allowing Tribune staffers to use the scandal as an excuse to lynch the unpopular Shelledy, Singleton set an ugly precedent that editors who don’t have the backing of their newsroom might as well negotiate buyout clauses, or at least throw a pizza party to get everybody smiling again. And he now has a situation at the Tribune where staffers, fresh off from dashing Piggy’s heads on the rocks, are emboldened by their ability to make management decisions. Because, after all, it wasn’t Singleton who pushed Jay Shelledy out the door—he simply held it open while the inmates applied the boot.

The Letter Campaign

When he learned the full details of what Cantera and Vigh had done, on April 28, Singleton reportedly said he felt like vomiting. But he had quite a different reaction when Shelledy informed him on April 24 of what was happening. Believing, as Shelledy did, that the two had only sold a “road map” of background information to The National Enquirer, Singleton was at least comfortable enough with his editor’s plans to discipline the reporters not to overrule him.

“Jay decided to put them on probation for that and write about it in Sunday’s paper,” Singleton said, adding that he thought the punishment should be harsher. “I don’t normally overrule editors. I let them reach their own decisions because they’re on the ground.”

And besides, Singleton admits that he didn’t think it was that big of a deal. “I didn’t really realize how serious this was. I believed we were dealing with two reporters who had conversations with The National Enquirer that involved nothing more than providing a road map.”

That’s what Shelledy thought he had on his hands, too—nothing more than two “chowderheads” who made a dumb mistake. Shelledy, who didn’t return numerous City Weekly phone calls, didn’t think it was a firing offense. Despite reports in his own newspaper that he felt Vigh and Cantera should have been fired outright, Singleton tells City Weekly that at the time, he didn’t necessarily think the reporters’ actions constituted immediate termination, either.

“Sharing road maps, that may not be a firing offense,” he said.

More than a few Tribune staffers disagreed, and that ultimately proved to be Shelledy’s undoing. Not a lack of ethics. Not losing his boss’ support. Not even failing to do his job. Instead, the former editor of a hick Idaho newspaper—who had managed to hang on at the Tribune for 12 years and through a contentious ownership change thanks to his abundant supply of stubbornness, obstinacy and arrogance—was fragged by his own ball-point infantry.

In newspaper reports, Shelledy specifically mentioned a lack of support in the newsroom as the reason for his resignation. The loss of support wasn’t sudden—many newsroom employees viewed Shelledy as an arrogant son of a bitch who played favorites. He had his golden boys, and they could do no wrong—not even when their cavalier attitudes about women created tension in the office. Like any manager, Shelledy wasn’t pals with some of the staffers he passed over for promotion. He was unpopular—Singleton notes that himself, citing it as an example that Shelledy was doing his job—and there were old scores to be settled.

Those wanting to settle them got the chance on Sunday, April 27, when Shelledy revealed Vigh and Cantera’s info yard sale—reported in the next day’s Deseret News to have netted the pair $20,000.

“Monday morning, when I showed up for work, with only a limited amount of knowledge [of what was happening], there were certain staffers that looked to me like a lynch mob,” said Tribune reporter Christopher Smart, who was interviewed by City Weekly prior to Shelledy’s resignation. “They were already talking at 9:30 a.m. of writing a letter and taking Kevin and Michael to task and Jay Shelledy for not firing them forthwith. ... It was a mob in the newsroom, operating on a mob mentality.”

Smart, who is distantly related to those Smarts, adds that he doesn’t condone what Vigh and Cantera did, calling the pair’s decision to be used as sources in the Enquirer’s July 2, 2002, story “hurtful,” both to the Tribune and the Smart family. But, he said, organizing a lynch mob set on stringing up Vigh and Cantera, and ultimately Shelledy, didn’t help.

“They were sitting around and talking about how Jay was letting them off, and that he shouldn’t let them off and that Jay was making a big mistake,” Smart said. “It’s really a frontal attack on Jay Shelledy, and there’s no way around that.”

The frontal attack included writing a letter and circulating it around the newsroom. If it sounds familiar to an earlier petition that Tribune staffers signed in an effort to spike Kathleen Parker’s nationally syndicated column critical of Ed Smart, it should. Some of the same people who signed that petition signed the letter, which attempted to distance Tribune employees from Vigh, Cantera and Shelledy. Several Tribune employees also confirmed that reporter Linda Fantin, the organizer of the Parker petition, was again involved in the genesis of the letter, which ran April 30 under the heading “A Statement from Tribune Staffers.” (Fantin declined City Weekly’s interview request.)

Forty-three people signed the letter. Smart was not one of them. “Whatever Kevin and Michael did does not taint my reputation,” he said. “Whatever Kevin and Michael did does not make me feel like I have to go out on the sidewalk and run up and down and say, ‘I’m a person of ethics.’”

Matt Canham, who worked the criminal justice beat along with Vigh and Cantera, didn’t sign either, although he was erroneously listed as a signatory. “I thought a letter was not the way to handle it,” he said. “A lot of people made the decision not to sign it. There’s a lot more than 44 [sic] people in this newsroom.”

Those who signed the letter felt it was necessary to make a statement to Tribune readers, and that it wasn’t a pin in any grenade intended for Shelledy.

“I thought it was important for the staff to convey to the public and the readers their anger and to outline how serious they take professional ethics,” said environment editor Greg Burton, who also was interviewed prior to Shelledy’s resignation. “The credibility of the reporters in this newsroom is unquestioned in this newsroom. But there’s probably a perception of damage by association within the community.”

Burton added that by signing, he wasn’t casting a no-confidence vote against Shelledy. “That’s not the reason I signed it,” he said. “It says what it says. It’s not no-confidence but [states] that there is a feeling he didn’t go far enough in his initial response.”

In the nearly 30 years Paul Rolly has worked at the Tribune, he has never seen anything like what unfolded last week. “This gets to the core of the newsroom and put, rightfully so, a question in our readers’ minds about the ethics of our reporters,” he said early last week. “This is the worst thing that has happened to our newspaper, and I felt that just by association, it brought a question to our readers’ minds about our ethics and credibility.”

Not surprisingly, Rolly signed the letter, and also not surprisingly, he shrugged off any suggestion that doing so somehow put Shelledy’s job at risk. “When I signed the letter, I didn’t do it to cast a no-confidence vote for Jay but ... we were not happy with Jay’s response, with the way he handled it with Vigh and Cantera in the beginning. Many people who signed that letter felt they should have been fired as soon as Jay found out about it because it was unconscionable.”

Rolly did acknowledge, however, that the letter might have affected Shelledy’s job status: “Perhaps it’s shaken the confidence in him a little bit.”

When Shelledy told his staff on Thursday, May 1 that he “didn’t have enough backing in the newsroom to have effective leadership,” he didn’t specifically mention the letter. Nor did he name the numerous e-mails that his boss solicited from Tribune staffers, e-mails which Singleton said reflected a lack of support for Shelledy. But whether intended or not, the letter at least provided those looking to settle scores an opportunity, and it was also the first of many displays in the Tribune newsroom that Shelledy’s support was evaporating.

“I was sorry to see it reflect a lack of faith in Jay Shelledy,” said columnist Holly Mullen, who signed the letter anyway because it stated that Tribune staffers were going to work to restore credibility.

After Shelledy resigned, Mullen added that she didn’t think the letter played a role at all in his decision. “I think a lot of people signed it believing that it could help him keep his job.”

The logic of that isn’t exactly clear, since the letter specifically mentioned the staff’s displeasure with their boss’ handling of the episode. Perhaps the thinking was that once the letter ran, everybody could move on—Shelledy included.

What the letter did outside of voicing public disproval with the Tribune editor is also a little unclear. It certainly didn’t prevent Shelledy from handing in his resignation and asking Singleton about two non-editor openings in the MediaNews Group, the Tribune’s parent company. And it likely didn’t change readers’ minds about the ethics of Tribune reporters and photographers since words are cheap—unless, of course, you’re getting paid by The National Enquirer.

Christopher Smart called the letter “childish and crass,” and he’s got a point. For one, claiming to be ethical is a bit like bragging about humility; the proof is in the inky pudding. For another, it was a subtle form of peer pressure. While Smart, Canham, Rolly and Burton are all quick to say no Tribune staffer pressured another to sign or not to sign, those who didn’t occasionally had to be on the defensive. Furthermore, it’s a bit odd that Tribune staffers felt compelled to tell the world that they’re ethical, since they did nothing unethical themselves. Then again, organizing petitions and lynch mobs probably isn’t condoned by the Society of Professional Journalists.

“I find it very difficult as a person who is not in management to weigh in and demand that heads roll,” Christopher Smart said. “What makes me sad is I believe the petition and this signing of letters and running up and down the stairs with it emboldened people, and that worries me.”

If Singleton is smart—and by all accounts, he is—he won’t allow the Linda Fantins of the newsroom to weigh in on management issues, whether it’s about an editor’s job or a critical column. But by openly soliciting dissent and then acting on it before emotions cooled, Singleton either got snookered by score-settling hacks or simply let Shelledy take the fall for a very public humiliation in which they were both complicit, dangling offers of future employment as an incentive.

“I’m not worried about settling old scores,” Singleton said. “If Jay believed in his heart that he could have come through this and rally the troops, it might have been appropriate to carry on. To Jay’s credit, he saw the writing on the wall before I did.”

Taking the Fall

As Singleton rapidly learned of Shelledy’s lack of support through the April 30 letter and through e-mail, he interestingly didn’t sidle up next to Shelledy. If Shelledy was indeed his man—don’t forget, this is the same member of the previous McCarthey regime that Singleton surprisingly held on to after purchasing the Tribune—all Singleton had to do was flash a little of his “Dean of Mean” rep and start humming some Tammy Wynette. Instead, he dropped hints in an April 30 Tribune article—the day before Shelledy was canned—that Shelledy’s job wasn’t safe. Staffers told City Weekly that Singleton hinted at it again in a staff meeting later that day. Perhaps that writing on the wall was scrawled by Singleton.

“I’ve tried not to be overly critical of Jay,” Singleton said. “I think he made a few judgment calls that I didn’t agree with and calls that the staff certainly didn’t agree with.”

But Singleton wasn’t so opposed to those judgment calls that he did anything about it; he instead relied on the decisions made by people “on the ground.” It’s a tack that’s necessary when you’re not on the ground yourself, or not even living in the same state where your paper is published.

Like Shelledy, Singleton decided to take a measured approach when he first learned of Vigh and Cantera’s actions. Instead of pulling triggers before the facts were known, both Singleton and Shelledy did the right thing. But for some reason, Shelledy paid for it and Singleton did not, even though the scandal blew up in both of their faces.

“It was not laid out to me as being too serious,” Singleton said. “Given what I know now, I’m not surprised by the eruption. The staff is upset, and they should be, and the community is upset, and they should be.”

Singleton has tried to rectify the situation by bloodying his knees with all of the heart-felt apologies to the Smart family and the community. At this point, if the Smarts asked the MediaNews Group CEO to swallow glass, he’d break the first vase he could find. He has apologized for what Vigh and Cantera did and has also apologized for the way Shelledy handled the situation. He hasn’t yet apologized, at least publicly, for how he handled it.

In retrospect, Singleton says that Shelledy should have assigned a news reporter to cover the scandal as early as April 17. He also says that Shelledy should have been more forthcoming in that April 27 column, which didn’t include details like how much the Enquirer paid Vigh and Cantera for their help. It’s good advice that Singleton might have suggested when Shelledy first approached him with the news that Vigh and Cantera had cashed checks from The National Enquirer.

“I don’t blame Jay for all this,” Singleton said. “He got lied to. He backed his people, and he probably backed them too hard.”

And that, apparently, is a firing offense at the new Salt Lake Tribune.

Tight Lips, Dry Sources

There’s more fallout to the Enquirer episode than unemployment and a paper’s credibility.

All the Smarts have ever wanted is privacy. They like to remind us of that every time they step in front of a microphone and every time they pose for a picture with President Bush. And now, every time they threaten to sue somebody for leaking information about their happy family, they will remind us that they’re not doing this for any other reason but to be left alone.

Such was the message last Friday, when Smart family attorney Randy Dryer announced that his clients’ motivation in pursuing the sources of leaked information to The National Enquirer wasn’t to get anybody fired or to put anybody in jail. It was so they could “return to normalcy.” But what it really means for Salt Lake City journalists is that their jobs just got that much harder—and the public’s right to know just got that much dicier.

“They want to let those who leak information know that there is some risk attached,” Dryer said at a Friday press conference.

He later added that it will undoubtedly result in the drying up of sources. “It’s going to make all of your jobs harder.” This coming from a First Amendment lawyer who has represented this town’s journalists for years, including City Weekly’s.

Ashley Broughton covers the police beat for The Salt Lake Tribune—the same beat that two of her colleagues worked before being fired last week for selling information to The National Enquirer. She was at Dryer’s press conference, and she picked up on the implications.

“I think that police, even those who weren’t targeted in this, probably were put on notice that off-the-record information could get them in hot water,” she said. “It’s going to make it harder for us to get information, particularly in a competitive environment.”

Dryer said the Smarts’ decision to pursue the Enquirer was difficult because it meant those “false and salacious” rumors would be printed again. But it was necessary, he said, because as the trial nears for Elizabeth’s accused abductors, the family worries its privacy will continue to be violated through unauthorized information leaks. Dryer said that unless law enforcement was told in a dramatic way that the leaks couldn’t continue, officials wouldn’t cease whispering in reporters’ ears.

While Dryer claimed there was nothing more to the Smarts’ pursuit than to silence the rumormongers, there’s no getting past the family’s apparent vindictiveness. When Tribune editor Jay Shelledy didn’t outright fire reporters Michael Vigh and Kevin Cantera for providing information to the tabloid, Smart family members expressed dismay and disappointment, whined that Shelledy hadn’t apologized to them in print and told the Deseret News that the reporters who sold information should be held responsible, as should those overseeing the reporters. But hey, they don’t want anybody to get fired or anything.

Tribune publisher Dean Singleton appreciates the Smarts’ vigorous pursuit of justice. “Had it not been for the Smarts hiring an attorney to investigate these leaks, we might not have ever found out about it, and that’s really scary.”

He has a point. So too do the folks who say this means everybody will start taking ethics seriously, that eyes won’t roll every time an editor tells his staff to dust off the ol’ company manual. Broughton, for one, says the entire episode makes her wonder if she even wants to use confidential sources anymore.

But if she does, she might find them hard to come by now that the Smarts have made it clear that they’re willing to litigate loose lips.

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Shane McCammon

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