By Ellen Eldridge, SPJ Georgia president
If it weren’t for Dr. Carolyn Carlson, I wouldn’t be president of the Georgia Pro chapter of Society of Professional Journalists. Honestly, I might not even be a working journalist.
I don’t say that to discount my hard work, but to emphasize how much her caring has helped my career. Less than one year after graduation from Kennesaw State University, where Carolyn was my news writing and reporting instructor as well as the academic adviser for SPJ on campus, I landed my dream job with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
But it hasn’t just been me Carolyn has helped over the last four decades.
Society of Professional Journalists:
Carolyn Carlson has been a member of Society of Professional Journalists since 1972, when it was known as Sigma Delta Chi. SPJ was founded in 1909 and reorganized in 1960 from a fraternity to a professional society with 11 regions, of which Georgia is in Region 3. Women weren’t allowed to join until 1969 and it wasn’t until 1973 that the name Society of Professional Journalists, Sigma Delta Chi was adopted.
For a complete history of SPJ, visit the timeline created by SPJ Georgia member Jennifer Peebles, who works as a data specialist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Historic Moments: A timeline of SPJ’s development
Carlson joined as a student in 1972 when she attended University of Georgia. She founded a now-defunct professional chapter in Augusta two years later.
In June 1975 — two months after the Vietnam War ended — when Carlson was president of the Augusta chapter, the now-defunct Atlanta Chapter hosted a news conference featuring then-Secretary of State Henry Kissenger.
It was the first event Carlson participated in that landed on the front page of the AJC in a big splash. But that’s not what Carlson best remembers from that night.
“The event was especially memorable for me because later that night I met my husband, Jan, for the first time,” Carlson said.
She spent the entire evening excitedly describing the entire experience because Kissenger was by far the most important person she had ever met before, Carlson said.
“I still have my press pass, which I got him to autograph — his signature was an H and a K with a line after each letter.”
But the best-attended Atlanta SPJ meeting Carlson remembers from that time featured Walter Cronkite, who was the anchor of CBS Evening News, as the speaker.
“We rented one of the biggest hotel banquet halls and charged a lot for tickets and still sold out,” Carlson remembered. “Before the luncheon, we held a reception for Cronkite in one of the hotel suites, inviting the chapter board members and local media executives. We were surprised to see Ted Turner there.”
Turner had joined SPJ when he started CNN, but never participated in anything before, Carlson said. “I welcomed him to the event and he told me he was there just to meet Cronkite, which he did and then immediately left, not staying for lunch.”
After college, Carlson took a job with the Associated Press and joined the now-defunct Atlanta Pro chapter of SPJ.
“My first job in the chapter was as a campus liaison and I started campus chapters as West Georgia and Clark Atlanta (both now defunct),” Carlson said.
She served as president of the Atlanta chapter in 1983 to 1984 and won the national large chapter of the year award. Carlson picked up the award at the 1985 convention in San Francisco, where she also served on the resolutions committee. “That was my first national committee assignment and I’ve been on national committees every year since then,” Carlson said.
Under her leadership, campus chapters started at Clark Atlanta and West Georgia, which the national board appreciated. The chapter put in a bid to host the national convention, known now as Excellence in Journalism.
“We hosted the national convention in 1986 and I was elected national treasurer that year,” Carlson said. “That’s when I started on the national board and started up the leadership ladder to secretary, president-elect and, in 1989-90, president, and then past-president.”
When Carlson was elected Treasurer at the Atlanta convention in 1986, she asked for and was named chair of the Diversity Committee. “One of my tasks was to serve on a coalition of journalism organizations dedicated to finding ways to improve the number of blacks going into the newspaper and television industry,” she said.
Arthur Ochs Sulaberger Jr., who is now the publisher of the New York Times, chaired the coalition.
“His father was the publisher at the time and Sulaberger, who was a very nice guy, looked about 16 years old though he was in his 30s,” Carlson said.
During the 1986 national convention, the tradition then was to hold a “roast” of a celebrity to benefit the Legal Defense Fund.
“Back then, Ted was virtually an alcoholic and, although not yet divorced from his first wife, he had developed a bad reputation as a womanizer.”
At the time, CNN was only six years old, but despite being considered an upstart, Ted Turner was by far the biggest media star in the Atlanta Chapter — not only for starting CNN, which was a revolutionary idea, but for turning Channel 17 into the first cable superstation by syndicating it to cable systems nationwide and making the Atlanta Braves, which he owned and broadcast every game, into “America’s Team.”
Turner had earlier made a national name for himself in 1977 by skippering the Courageous to victory in sailing’s America’s Cup, Carlson said.
“So, of course, we asked him to be the subject of our roast and invited several people who knew him well to be the roasters,” Carlson said. “Back then, Ted was virtually an alcoholic and, although not yet divorced from his first wife, he had developed a bad reputation as a womanizer.”
Sure enough, Carlson said, Turner showed up drunk as a skunk with his latest paramour by his side, a young woman who he had hired as his helicopter pilot. She sat next to him on the stage and they whispered to each other while the roasters did their thing.
“He paid no attention,” Carlson said. “When it was his time to talk, he did not respond to anything they said, but instead talked about how CNN was doing great despite all the critics calling it ‘Chicken News Network.’”
The convention attendees were charmed, Carlson said, but all the locals could talk about was his being drunk and parading his girlfriend in public while he was still married.
President of SPJ
During her presidency from 1989 to 1990, SPJ headquarters moved from Chicago to Greencastle, Indiana, which saved a quarter-million dollars in operating funds the first year. A few years later, headquarters relocated to nearby Indianapolis, where it remains today.
When Carlson left the national board in 1991, she was given her pick of committees to chair and she chose the National Ethics Committee because, as president in 1990, she had proposed that SPJ create a “user’s manual” for their Code of Ethics, but had to set that aside during the move of headquarters.
“I was chair for three years and we did produce the first edition of ‘Doing Ethics’ that led eventually to the first rewrite of the Code of Ethics in about 25 years,” Carlson said. “I was very proud of that.”
Originally, she wanted to rewrite the code, but had met with profound resistance from the committee. “The book helped to point out how out of date the original code had become,” she said.
After that, Carlson joined the Freedom of Information Committee as a member, and has happily been a member — and not a chair — of that committee ever since.
The second event Carlson participated in to land on A1 in the AJC was in the winter of 1992, when then-Lt. Gov. Zell Miller used the chapter’s Legislative Luncheon to announce he would make the creation of a Georgia Lottery to support college scholars and a pre-K program the centerpiece of his gubernatorial campaign.
“I asked a friend if he was there and he said, ‘You mean when all the air was sucked out of the room?’” That’s how shocking the idea was at the time,” Carlson said.
Miller was recently diagnosed with dementia, which makes the memory now bittersweet for Carlson.
“That luncheon was special for me because I was the organizer and, as the AP reporter covering the Senate which Zell presided over, I had invited him to be the speaker,” Carlson said. “I knew something was up when Zell called me personally about a week before the event to make sure the capital press corps would be at the event.”
She remembers telling him they hadn’t registered, and “he assured me he’d make sure they were there,” she said. “They came, as did a lot of other people he invited. But he didn’t tell anyone why.”
Carlson was thrilled that Miller had chosen her chapter’s event to make the audacious announcement.
The SPJ Wells Key
Chester C. Wells, SPJ’s second national president, died in office at age 26. In his memory, the society began giving the Wells Memorial Key, which today is its highest honor. The first key was presented to Wells’ predecessor, the first national president, Laurence Sloan.
Carlson earned the honor in 1993 for work she’d done on the national level since serving on the national board. She chaired at different times over the years both the FOI and Ethics committees.
In 1998, Carlson won the national First Amendment Award for her work with the industry-wide Task Force on Campus Courts, which successfully lobbied Congress to amend FERPA to allow colleges and universities to release the final results of disciplinary actions against students accused of violent crimes and sexual offenses.
“The task force, which I founded, involved more than 30 professional organizations representing the media,” Carlson said. “Its main mission was to alert the media to the way schools were using their disciplinary procedures to hide serious crimes, mostly rape, from the public.”
Her work also led to Congress amending the Clery Act to require campuses to keep a daily crime log.
“I served on the U.S. Department of Education’s working committee to develop the regulations to enforce the crime logs provisions,” she said.
From 2007 to 2016, she produced national surveys for the FOI Committee involving various groups of reporters and government public information officers about the relationships between the two groups. Those surveys have provided the foundation for SPJ’s ongoing campaign to improve government transparency and ease barriers put in place by PIOs to reporter access to subject matter experts and public records.
Though her work focused on the national level, Carlson maintained her membership with the local chapter and she acted as adviser to the Kennesaw State University campus chapter, where I met her in 2013 and became the chapter’s president. I hadn’t heard of SPJ and, at that time, there was no local professional chapter. The student chapter at KSU was the only active SPJ chapter in Georgia.
By the time I was a senior at KSU, I ran for the student representative seat on the national board, which earned me the attention of Sharon Dunten. She founded the SPJ Pro Chapter shortly after moving to Atlanta from Indianapolis and was discouraged that the Atlanta Pro chapter had become defunct.
By the time I graduated KSU, in May 2015, I was appointed president-elect by vote of the sitting SPJ Georgia board.
I encouraged Carlson to work with the chapter and she politely declined, but continued to nominate me as an exceptional alumna and told me I am probably the most successful student she’s ever had at KSU.
She spoke about her work with the FOIA Committee during Sunshine Week in March 2016 at the AJC. Senior Managing Editor Bert Roughton also participated in the law and transparency luncheon.
Carlson’s work is impressive and she’s set the bar high for journalists following in her footsteps. Now that I’m president of the SPJ Georgia Pro Chapter, I will present Carlson with a commemorative plaque to thank her for her decades of service. She joined SPJ in December 1972 so the week of our third annual holiday mixer marks 45 years with SPJ. Her dedication to the work of local journalists should be celebrated.
Our mixer is co-hosted this year with the Atlanta Association of Black Journalists and the Atlanta chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association.
The holiday mixer follows the 6 p.m. December board meeting, which is open to all current SPJ Georgia members. To R.S.V.P. for the free event on Dec. 9, visit Eventbrite by following this link.