By Anthony Fenech
Somewhere high in the sky between Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas, Kevin Smith stopped what he was doing to think for a minute.
“And I’m thinking, ‘Really? Was that really a year ago?’” he said Monday.
It really was a year ago when Smith took hold of the most prestigious position on SPJ’s board of directors. And it really will end Tuesday after 13 months on the job.
“It seems like it was just a couple of weeks ago,” he remembered thinking during that six-hour journey to the West Coast.
“It has flown by, it really has,” he said.
Smith’s time as SPJ president is ending, but he isn’t going anywhere. He plans to remain active, particularly on pushing Congress to enact a federal shield law.
He sat inside an empty conference room at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino Monday, wearing a colorful tie with ribbons dangling from his name tag, and gave at least one reason that he won’t fade away after his term as president ends.
“I wish we had the shield law passed,” he said. “That was my number one focus.”
Never mind that under Smith’s presidency, SPJ increased membership, created a budget surplus for the first time in a few years and opened its first international chapter in Qatar.
He still wants a federal shield law to protect journalists who use anonymous sources from prosecution or jail time. Some states already have such laws to protect journalists.
Smith wants a free flow of information from the press to the public and he wants two senators to stop holding up the bill.
He said the law is about more than protecting journalists.
“This is about believing in democracy, and if you believe in democracy and the citizens’ right to decide, then the citizens deserve the information to make those decisions,” Smith said.
Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Charles E. Schumer of New York have blocked the bill for months over concerns about extending protection to bloggers and others who do marginal amounts of journalism.
The fate of the bill is “out of our control to a certain degree,” Smith said. “You can advocate it and work with people, but it’s ultimately Congress’ decision and sometimes it’s an enormous dinosaur to move.”
He was on Capitol Hill last week, handing out letters and urging senators to support the bill.
A native of West Virginia, the 53-year-old Smith is divorced and lives in Harrisonburg, Va., a few hours away from the nation’s capitol. He plans to continue pressing for the shield law and has approval from Hagit Limor, SPJ’s incoming president, to do so.
Limor and Joe Skeel, SPJ’s executive director, spoke highly of Smith’s leadership. Skeel met him in the back of a bus in Seoul, South Korea. Limor met him in a boardroom in Cincinnati.
Both said they instantly knew Smith had the makings of a leader.
“I knew by the end of the bus ride,” said Skeel.
Limor said Smith “made a great first impression.”
Smith was inducted to Sigma Delta Chi (SPJ’s former name) as a college student in 1978. He joined SPJ’s ethics committee in 1988, and spent 18 years there before leaping to the board of directors.
Perhaps fittingly, Smith will ease into his role as immediate past president by serving as chair of Limor’s ethics committee.
The new position will give him a chance to boost SPJ’s ethics policies, including promoting and marketing the organization’s new ethics book being released in January.