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The Palm Beach Daily News , or "Shiny Sheet," as it is known on the island of filthy riches, may be the most influential small-town newspaper in the country.
Millionaire socialites gauge their worth by their appearances in the newspaper, which has a circulation of about 7,000. Charities backed by billionaires vie for coverage, and social climbers compete for prime spots in the pages. Because of its local cachet, it is one of the few publications in America untouched by the economic downturn.
And the consensus appears to be that the most powerful journalist at the most powerful newspaper on the exclusive island is longtime Society Editor Shannon Donnelly, the arbiter of whose picture gets in and, sometimes more important, whose stays out.
That power has helped make Donnelly a star on the island, enough so that she is featured as one of the main characters in Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death Behind The Gates of Palm Beach, a new book about the superwealthy island enclave's underbelly.
Bestselling author Laurence Leamer's portrait of Donnelly, the salty and talented 54-year-old daughter of an Irish cop, is balanced and rich. It prompted theReview of the Book to sum up Donnelly as "good-hearted" in a recent review.
But the powers that be at the Daily News apparently weren't pleased. Tucked into the book's 368 pages is the serious allegation that Donnelly accepted gifts from a socialite named Barbara Wainscott Berger, who in turn received much-coveted coverage in the Shiny Sheet. "One of the first things Barbara did when she moved into Elephant Walk was invite Shannon to think of the house as hers, where she could come and go as she liked," Leamer writes. "Shannon told her associates she swam nude in the protected pool."
Leamer also writes rather damningly of Donnelly's 2001 wedding to a much-older man who has rarely been seen since:
"Almost everyone in Palm Beach sought Shannon's favor, and she was overwhelmed by gifts. Gossip is the only food that Palm Beachers gorge on, and there was an undertone of whispering that if you wanted to be covered in the Shiny Sheet, you'd better pay up, and a wedding gift was the easiest way of all."
Accepting gifts from those you cover, of course, is a journalistic sin. Similar allegations, though on a much larger scale, felled Page 6 gossip columnist Jared Paul Stern in 2006.
Leamer — who has written New York Times bestsellers about the Kennedy family and Johnny Carson — claims the Shiny Sheet has all but blackballed the book as a result of his revelations about Donnelly. The newspaper failed to write about its January 20 release or its fast rise to the top of the island bookstores' bestselling lists (it has also been ranked consistently in the low 200s on Amazon.com).
Last week, however, the newspaper apparently relented; a rather ambivalent story about the book was published in the newspaper on Monday, along with a rebuttal to the book by Daily News Publisher Joyce Reingold, who wrote that it contains inaccuracies and distortions that weren't specified and that she stands behind the integrity of the "society editor and staff."
That was published four days after I spoke with Reingold, who told me that the newspaper had never blackballed the book. She said, in fact, that she hadn't read it yet.
What's contained in the book about Donnelly and Shiny Sheet, however, is only the tip of the tip of the iceberg of what Leamer found. There's no mention, for instance, that the author was banned from visiting the newspaper last summer after raising questions about Donnelly.
The author's extensive research inevitably took him to the Daily News office, where Leamer was given full access to the newspaper's archives and library (or morgue). It was while digging up dirt on the town that Leamer says he started turning up secrets about the newspaper.
He says he learned during his research that three Shiny Sheet reporters took allegations about Donnelly to Reingold, the publisher. The basic charge made by the reporters, according to Leamer, was that a double standard existed at the Daily News. While Donnelly took gifts from sources, the other reporters operated under a very strict ethics code, like all journalists who work at the newspaper's parent Cox Enterprises, which also owns the Palm Beach Post.
Another source close to the newsroom confirmed that the meeting between the reporters and Reingold occurred. In the end, the people suspected of having given Donnelly gifts denied it, according to Leamer, and the matter was dismissed.
When Leamer asked Daily News Editor Pat Thomas about the incident last summer, he says she abruptly terminated the interview and told him that anyone at the newspaper who talked to him about the matter would risk being fired.
Thomas then sent Leamer an email, which he forwarded to me. "Neither Joyce nor I have anything further to say on the subject of personnel matters," Thomas wrote to the author on July 28 of last year. "And I don't think you'll be particularly surprised to hear that your library privileges in our building are suspended and you cannot use the PBDN morgue for future research."
I asked Reingold about the reporters' allegations. "If it did happen, it's nothing that I would discuss," the publisher told me on the phone. "I guess you can understand that any alleged personnel issue is private. We fully stand behind the integrity of our staff, including our society editor, Shannon Donnelly."
One thing about Donnelly that isn't in dispute is that she's one of the island's great characters. Donnelly didn't respond to my detailed messages for comment, but I spoke to several Palm Beachers who described her as a hard-boiled woman with voracious appetites and a keen sense of her own power.
Donnelly often sits at the head table at parties and balls, an odd place for a lowly reporter. Donald Trump usually makes a point to talk her up when he sees her. Leamer writes in the book that Wayne Newton once sang in her honor at the Cancer Ball, one of the "major events of the season."
She had two bridal showers when she married her second husband, one with her friends at the newspaper and another with wealthy socialites, many of whom belong to Trump's extravagant Mar-a-Lago Club . The wedding has a piece of lore on the island; Donnelly allegedly received expensive gifts from Tiffany's and Neiman Marcus, some of which she is said to have sold on eBay.
That may be a Donnelly myth, but it goes around quite a bit.
Her husband lives in her hometown of Newport, Rhode Island, leaving her to roam Palm Beach, where her behavior borders on the bawdy. One source told of how, at a high-society party, the full-figured editor rubbed her breasts on the back of one wealthy husband and told him he'd just received a "Shannogram." Another recounted the time Donnelly announced at a newspaper staff meeting that she was heading to Las Vegas for a weekend.
"Are you going to see any shows?" someone asked.
"No, I'm not going to see any shows," she answered. "I'm going to see the casinos and maybe the ceiling."
At the newspaper, Donnelly laughingly calls herself "The Queen," adorning her desk area with tiaras. She even went so far as to get a vanity plate on her Mercedes Benz at one time with the word Kween on it, according to a source.
It may have been mostly in jest, but there's no mistaking the fact that Donnelly is royalty at the newspaper. The question is whether she's really committing journalistic transgressions that would land most reporters in serious hot water, if not fired.
Several sources told me that Donnelly accepted gifts from sources, but in the society editor's favor, it's all words. There is no smoking gun, no proof of chronic payola. For instance, a story surfaced that wealthy Palm Beach socialite Donna Shalek, who has often appeared in the Daily News, either gave Donnelly $1,000 as a gift or as a loan that was never paid back.
When I contacted Shalek, she told me she thought the world of Donnelly. When I asked her about the thousand dollars, she seemed taken aback. "I don't remember it," Shalek said. "I'm an 82-year-old woman, and I'm not with it much anymore." Then she abruptly ended the call.
Those who know Shalek, however, say she's as sharp as a tack.
"You don't get smoke without fire," says one well-connected Palm Beach source. "This is a topic that has been smoldering for many, many years. It's what happens when you fly too close to the sun. What story is that? Icarus? She isn't paid well, and she's on a beat where all the people are millionaires. It takes a person of great integrity to resist the trappings of that."
Another source, a millionaire socialite who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says Donnelly has received a wealth of gifts, including expensive trips. She says she has seen examples of it, but again, there's no proof.
That source said Donnelly is introduced at prominent parties as "the queen" and the "power of Palm Beach." And she says that the people who don't play the game don't get into the Shiny Sheet — or, if they do, it's in black and white rather than color.
"I've been there, and I've listened to it," says the source. "She sits at the head table. She shouldn't be sitting at the head table. People buy her gifts like crazy. It is incredible what goes on with this girl.
"She's a trip," the source says. "It's all the self-appointed elite. A lot of people pay her no mind at all. Real bluebloods don't get involved in the Shannon thing. It's hilarious. I use it for entertainment. I might sound pissed off, but I'm not. I'm just waiting for the next laugh. It's the middle of a zoo."
Reingold, the Daily News publisher, says she's confident that her society editor — who also happens to be a very close and longtime friend — isn't on the take. I asked her why so many people would say Donnelly accepts gifts if she doesn't.
"There are just lots of whisper and smear campaigns here," the publisher answered. "It's a small island, as you know. People are always jockeying for position."
Good thing for the Shiny Sheet. All that jockeying helps keep the paper — and Shannon Donnelly — in business.