The Palm Beach Daily News is one of the most powerful small papers in America. The paper has a vendetta against me because of what I wrote about Society Editor Shannon Donnelly in my new book, Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach. But the story is far larger than the way I have been treated. I thought it was a good story and any number of journalists would want to write it. I tried everywhere. Nobody would touch it until I emailed Bob Norman who writes the Daily Pulp blog and a column for New Times, the South Florida weekly. Norman is a must read for journalists in South Florida. He's fearless and determined and is the model of what an investigative reporter should be.
Palm Beach Author Says 'Shiny Sheet' Society Editor Received Gifts
By Bob Norman
Tuesday, Feb. 3 2009
The Palm Beach Daily News, or "Shiny Sheet" as it is known on the island of filthy riches, is one of the most influential small-town newspapers 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 cache, it is one of the few publications in America untouched by the economic downturn.
And the most powerful journalist at the most powerful newspaper on the exclusive island is long-time society editor Shannon Donnelly, the arbiter of whose picture gets in and, sometimes more importantly, 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 newly published book about the super-wealthy island enclave's underbelly.
Bestselling author Laurence Leamer's portrait of Donnelly, a salty and talented 54-year-old daughter of an Irish cop, is balanced and rich. It prompted the Washington Post 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 in 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 on 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 all but blackballed his newest book as a result of his revelations about Donnelly. The newspaper neglected to write about its January 20 release or its fast rise to the top of the island's bookstores' bestseller lists (it has also been consistently ranked 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 the book contains unspecified inaccuracies and distortions and that she stands behind the integrity of the "society editor and staff." That was published four days after I spoke with Reingold.
What's contained in the book about Donnelly and the Shiny Sheet, however, is only 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.
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