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.