Al Smith To Be Honored for Service
Al Smith

By Scripps Howard First Amendment Center

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Nov. 3, 2011) — Al Smith, a tireless advocate for open government as a newspaper editor, publisher and industry leader, and the journalist who created a statewide forum that has fostered public discussion of Kentucky policy and politics, has been chosen the 2011 recipient of the James Madison Award for service to the First Amendment. 

The award is given annually to a Kentuckian by the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center in theUniversity of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications. The award will be presented on Tuesday, Nov. 15, during the center’s annual First Amendment Celebration. 

“Al Smith was one of the first people I met when I came to UK, and I was immediately inspired by his passion for journalism,” said Beth Barnes, director of the School of Journalism and Telecommunications.  “The opportunities I’ve had to work with him and learn from him since that time have only deepened my appreciation for his commitment to the highest ideals of journalism.  He is a longtime champion of the First Amendment and a marvelous addition to the list of James Madison Award recipients.”  

The judges unanimously chose Smith, said Mike Farrell, director of the Scripps center.

“Throughout his distinguished career, Al Smith has promoted and fought for the values that embody our treasured freedoms of expression," Farrell said. "His life’s work, as a faithful steward of the First Amendment, has enlightened citizens, invigorated our public discourse and held the powerful accountable. Kentucky has been blessed because Al Smith made the state his home and because journalism was his calling.”

One of Smith’s most important contributions to Kentucky is “Comment on Kentucky,” a public affairs program broadcast on Kentucky Educational Television (KET) each Friday. Smith was the founding host and producer of the statewide program that features journalists and academics discussing current issues. “Comment” debuted in November 1974, and Smith hosted the program until he retired, 33 years later, as the longest-tenured host of such a program on public television. The show continues as KET’s longest-running public affairs program.

“Al has been one of Kentucky’s leading advocates for robust debate in the marketplace of ideas and promotion of the watchdog role of the press,” wrote Al Cross in nominating Smith. Cross is an associate professor of journalism and director of UK’s Institute of Rural Journalism and Community Issues and a long-time associate of Smith. “Creating and maintaining such a program was no small feat. Some members of the KET board opposed the idea, and given Kentucky’s political history and culture, they may have rightly questioned the idea of a program on a state-owned network wading into politics with the opinions of journalists.  But Al made it work, and he made it work so well that public officials and political operatives never interfered with him.”

Smith was born in 1927 and grew up in Florida and Tennessee. After military service in World War II, he attended Vanderbilt University. His journalism career began in New Orleans where for 10 years he worked for daily newspapers, the Times-Picayune and the New Orleans Item.

He moved to Kentucky in 1958 to become editor of the Russellville News-Democrat, which became part of a chain of weekly newspapers he organized and headed until selling the company in 1985. 

Before, during and after his year as president of the Kentucky Press Association in 1975, he fought for open government and helped lead the effort to pass the state Open Meetings Act and Open Records Act.

Smith, of Lexington, is the author of a memoir, "Wordsmith: My Life in Journalism," to be published this month.

“From his early days as feisty cops reporter on the streets of New Orleans to his latter days as Kentucky’s most recognized voice and visage in journalism, Al Smith has been a tribute to the First Amendment’s power and purpose,” said nominator Mark Neikirk, director of the Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement at Northern Kentucky University.

Smith’s successor at “Comment,” Ferrell Wellman, also wrote to nominate him for the award: “Mr. Smith’s role in Kentucky journalism … has been far more than just setting a standard for other community journalists to follow. He helped and promoted more good young journalists than anyone else in the state during my professional career, and he encouraged them to follow the highest standards of journalism and to serve their audiences.”

Smith was a member of the inaugural class of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 1981 and a recipient of the Ralph Gabbard Distinguished Kentuckian Award from the Kentucky Broadcasters Association. The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) has honored him as a Fellow of the Society, the highest honor SPJ bestows upon a journalist for extraordinary contributions to the profession. Earlier this year, the Bluegrass Chapter of SPJ and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which Smith conceived, created the Al Smith Award for public service through rural or community journalism by a Kentuckian and made him its first recipient. He holds honorary degrees from eight colleges and universities, most recently from UK.

The Madison Award was created by the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center in 2006 and is awarded annually to a Kentuckian who has made significant contributions to the efforts of a free press or freedom of speech. Smith is the sixth recipient.

The previous First Amendment advocates who were honored were KyForward publisher Judith G. Clabes, who founded the First Amendment Center while editor of The Kentucky Post and president of the Kentucky Press Association; Jon Fleischaker, a Louisville media attorney who helped draft Kentucky’s sunshine laws and has waged numerous court battles to ensure the laws are enforced; Tom Loftus, veteran Frankfort reporter of the Courier-Journal who has used open records to hold public officials accountable for their actions and policies; David Hawpe, retired editor and reporter for the Courier-Journal who championed openness during his career; and John Nelson, managing editor of the Danville Advocate-Messenger, who while president of the Kentucky Press Association led the state’s first open records audit and has fought repeated battles for more government transparency.

The Madison Award will be presented at 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 15. Mark Feldstein, former investigative reporter for CNN and ABC News, will then deliver the State of the First Amendment address. The event is free and open to the public in Room 106 of the White Hall Classroom Building on the UK campus.  

MEDIA CONTACT: Keith Hautala, (859) 323-2396; keith [dot] hautala [at] uky [dot] edu