One of the largest television stations in South Carolina is facing criticism over its handling of the 2021 Columbia, S.C. mayoral race – including allegations it is favoring one of the frontrunners in the contest at the expense of another. These allegations picked up steam last week when the station hosted a debate moderated by an anchor who happens to be close friends with one of the candidates – sitting city councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine.
The debate ended in controversy when Devine’s top rival for the job – sitting city councilman Daniel Rickenmann – was cut off less than fifteen seconds into his closing statement.
Judi Gatson anchors the 5:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. nightly newscasts for WIS TV-10 (NBC – Columbia, S.C.). Gatson has been at the station since November 1995, and is one of WIS’s best known and well-respected local personalities.
Gatson was chosen by WIS to moderate this debate, which was held on Thursday evening at the station’s studios in downtown Columbia, S.C.
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Gatson (above) initiated the proceedings with a lengthy soliloquy on the need to raise salaries for police officers and fire fighters in Columbia. This soliloquy eventually gave way to a question about whether the candidates seated around the table supported such pay increases, but any illusion that WIS was hosting an objective affair was pretty much shredded from the outset.
To be clear: Gatson gets no argument from me when it comes to the need to devote more taxpayer resources to law enforcement and other first responders in South Carolina’s capital city. I believe she was absolutely correct in raising this issue in the context she did.
As opportunity dwindles in Columbia due to its pervasive lack of competitiveness, crime in and around the South Carolina capital has soared. The city’s police force, in particular, was already understaffed – which is one reason I have challenged city leaders (including Devine) in recent years to stop wasting money on speculative real estate boondoggles and start focusing on core government functions like public safety.
Have they listened? No. Which is why the problem is getting worse …
Again, I have no issue with Gatson raising the issue of compensation for law enforcement – and I agree 100 percent with the perspective she put forward. But let’s not pretend she was even remotely objective in doing so. Which is fine – unless you work for a media outlet which prides itself on its ostensible objectivity.
Anyway, as the debate progressed Gatson peppered the candidates with questions about homelessness, Covid-19 mandates, “gun violence” (a loaded term in and of itself), social justice, affordable housing and candidate ethics – specifically referencing some of the recent negative attacks lobbed against the candidates.
Was she fair in her treatment of the four contenders? I think so, although multiple observers have told me they felt Gatson was quicker (and brusquer) in cutting off Devine’s opponents as she enforced time limitations on their responses during the debate – especially toward the tail end of the one-hour affair.
I watched the entire debate – twice, in fact. I did not see anything that I would describe as overtly unfair. There were a few instances in which it appeared as though Gatson’s tone was harsher in cutting off the other candidates, but aside from the litany of leading questions she offered I perceived no bias on her part for or against any of the four contenders.
The only problem I had with Gatson’s moderation of the debate? Her failure to put Devine on the spot for multiple documented conflicts of interest – including the taxpayer funds her former nonprofit, EngenuitySC received from a local school district led by her husband, Jamie Devine. Also, EngenuitySC’s for-profit management company – Sagacious Partners LLC – wound up donating more than $1,500 to Devine’s campaigns for city council.
We will return to Devine and her husband’s various and sundry shady dealings momentarily, though …
During a debate in which the ethics of the candidates (or lack thereof) figured so prominently, Gatson’s failure to raise this issue struck me as a glaring omission. Of course, the veteran anchor has previously served as an emcee for events hosted by Devine’s school district – scandal-scarred Richland school district one – which some have suggested is a possible reason the subject never came up.
Other than this omission, though, I observed no galling inequities in how the four candidates were treated by Gatson.
Not until the end, anyway …
During the final moments of the WIS mayoral forum (when the candidates were invited to deliver their closing statements), Gatson allowed Devine and attorney Sam Johnson – former chief of staff to outgoing mayor Steve Benjamin – to deliver their full, forty-five second closing remarks. She also cut off candidate Moe Baddourah, a local businessman and former city councilman, when he reached his time limit.
Was this fair? Absolutely. I timed the responses (twice), and Devine and Johnson both wrapped up their closing comments prior to their time limits expiring. Also, Gatson enforced a clearly articulated time limit on Baddhourah when his closing remarks ran long.
All of that was perfectly fair …
The problem? Rickenmann – who along with Devine is one of the frontrunners in this race – was shut down only eleven seconds into his closing remarks.
The local businessman literally wasn’t permitted to finish his sentence …
“Our time is up,” Gatson said as Rickennman was just beginning his closing statement.
“Whoa!” Rickenmann exclaimed.
“I apologize, good night everyone,” Gatson said.
And just like that … click. End of broadcast.
(Click to view)
Polling in this race has consistently shown Rickenmann running neck-and-neck with Devine. However, neither candidate is likely to come close to securing a majority of votes on November 2 – meaning the pair could conceivably square off in a head-to-head runoff election two weeks later.
Given Rickenmann’s status as one of the two frontrunners in this contest, WIS’s failure to allow him the same opportunity to address viewers as the other candidates was inexcusable. And fairly or not, Gatson bore the brunt of that criticism.
To say Gatson engaged her critics in response would be an understatement. The anchor fired back – even to her anonymous detractors – with a torrent of indignant tweets. Gatson was especially miffed when viewers pointed out her purportedly close relationship with Devine.
“After living and working in Columbia for twenty-plus years, I clearly have seen councilwoman Devine many, many times and at many events, including church but to think anyone can make a fair assessment of anyone’s personal relationships based on random social media posts is just asinine,” Gatson tweeted in response to one critic.
Pressed as to her relationship with the councilwoman, Gatson rebuked those who presumed to have insights into her friendships.
“No idea why you think you you know who my friends are, especially my best friends,” she tweeted.
Gatson also chimed in when one of her supporters referred to a particularly outspoken anonymous critic as a “troll.”
“Some people think keyboard courage is a real thing but I can assure you it is not,” Gatson tweeted.
“People know that you and (Devine) go way back, and have a close relationship,” responded the alleged troll, who goes by the name Cola S.C. Watchdog. “That’s why it’s inappropriate for you to moderate a debate which she is participating in.”
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“Being friendly is very different from being biased and crossing ethical lines,” Gatson (above, with Devine) fired back. “I try to be friendly to most (although that is really being tested today) but I do not subscribe to the latter, ever.”
When I spoke with Gatson on Saturday morning, she was still hot over the criticism.
“Instead of all this political bullshit if you think there is an issue with their integrity – have that debate,” she said. “Have it intellectually.”
Wait … whose integrity are we talking about? Devine’s? Or Gatson’s?
“Let me tell you something – as much as I enjoy my job and take my job very seriously – my number one job is being the best wife and mother I can be and living my life by my faith and if there are people who are going to challenge my honesty and my integrity you better believe I am going to set the record straight,” Gatson told me.
As for the abrupt ending to the debate which resulted in Rickenmann being cut off prematurely, Gatson said it was an error which “was absolutely regrettable” and which she “immediately acknowledged.”
However, she rebuked critics seeking to portray it as evidence of bias on her part.
“To make the assertion that a timing error that cost one person fifteen seconds is somehow evidence of a debate being unfair or Judi Gaston not having integrity – that is asinine, that is ridiculous,” Gatson said.
Pressed as to the extent of her relationship with Devine, Gatson reiterated her previous statements on social media.
“I am friendly with her, but the people who I count as my friends and my best friends? She is not on that list,” Gatson told me.
(Click to view)
However, following an event a few years ago Gatson took to Facebook to praise Devine effusively.
“THANK YOU for your love and friendship,” Gatson wrote (emphasis original). “You know I believe God placed us in each other’s lives for a reason. I’m grateful for all we have shared … and am excited knowing there is so much more to come. Watching you as a wife, mother daughter, businesswoman and leader inspires me everyday.”
Gatson also appears on Devine’s personal website, promoting Devine as a paid public speaker.
“Tameika Isaac Devine is a powerful speaker with an engaging style and personality,” she wrote. “Whether speaking about business, political issues or sharing her personal testimony she has a unique ability to connect with her audience in a way that uplifts and inspires!”
As for Devine, she has referred to Gatson as “my friend and my sister.”
“I am so grateful that her career brought her to Columbia and that our lives intersected,” Devine wrote on Facebook a few years ago. “She is an amazing friend and I love her dearly.”
I asked the man in charge of programming at WIS TV whether he believed his station displayed favoritism in its coverage of the mayoral race.
“There is no favorite,” WIS general manager Lyle Schulze told me on Friday. “We did a service to the community at large. Everybody got to see exactly what they were looking for in a heated mayoral race.”
Schulze did acknowledge the timing error at the end of the debate, however.
“The only issue that I had was we somewhat ran out of time at the end – but we did give (Rickenmann) extra time on our website to complete his thoughts,” Schulze said, adding that the station would be “bringing all of the candidates back” prior to the election to speak directly to voters.
As for Gatson, Schulze described her debate performance as “intelligent” and “extraordinarily impartial.” He went on to say Gatson was a “fabulous journalist – one of the best I’ve ever worked with in my 43 years in this business.”
Schulze also dismissed the criticism Gatson has received in the aftermath of the debate.
“People are going to have their own opinions – especially on social media,” Schulze said.
As for Gatson, she seemed upset that I had interviewed her boss for this story.
“I don’t need anybody to speak for me I speak for my damn self,” she told me. “Typically I don’t respond to bullshit but when people want to hide behind social media accounts, I am going to set the record straight. All this bullshit on anonymous accounts – people who want to hide behind scurrilous social media accounts. Don’t come to me talking about a debate being unfair.”
Again, with the exception of the abrupt ending that denied Rickenmann time to make his closing remarks I did not think the debate was unfair – nor do I think Gatson demonstrated favoritism for or against any of the candidates (although again, I do believe she could have been much more aggressive in exploring some of Devine’s previous ethical issues).
However, this is just one allegation of favoritism involving WIS and Devine. Stay tuned for more in a forthcoming report …
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children. And yes, in addition to having lots of kids he has LOTS of hats (including that Chicago Blackhawks’ lid pictured above).
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