Opinion

Audio Astra: Honesty vs. ignorance with COVID, plus redistricting and school censorship

August 20, 2021 3:33 am

Hearing Schmidt continue his campaign against mandates is maddening, writes Eric Thomas, when public health studies prove mandates are effective. (Getty Images)

Audio Astra reviews recent audio reporting on Kansas news, including podcasts and radio stories. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.

To start this week’s audio recap, let’s do a comparison of two COVID-focused podcasts. On one podcast, we have Joseph LeMaster, the Johnson County local health officer. On the other, we have Derek Schmidt, the attorney general of Kansas. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could trust them both on matters of the pandemic?

Derek Schmidt campaigns for governor

Kansas Reflector, Aug. 16, 2021

Public health order in effect

Jocogov, Aug. 12, 2021

What a tension between these two episodes. The attorney general uses the Kansas Reflector interview as an opportunity to preach his conservative principles rather than tackling the crisis of COVID. Contrast that with the Johnson County podcast, which relies on science and trusted experts in public health and administration.

This tension between the two episodes suggests grand questions about media and politics. Should we be handing public officials like Derek Schmidt, who seem fine with misrepresenting the risks and interventions surrounding COVID, the chance to play public health official? And how can we make genuinely helpful podcasts like this one from “jocogov” more popular?

Listening to the Johnson County podcast, you’ll note the humility from public officials who are comfortable admitting the boundaries of what they know. They also rely on precise language to describe how we can reduce risk and keep people safe. The “jocogov” hosts and guests both care enough to choose words (facts, that is) that steer away from making enemies. 

Schmidt’s words, by contrast, pick a fight. He relies on political buzzwords (like “independence” and “personal choice”) rather than facing facts. And most frustrating is how the political approach from people like Schmidt toward COVID policy make it less likely that the nuanced views of the Johnson County officials could ever be adopted. Schmidt and others have supercharged their rhetoric beyond positions of common sense interventions.

When reporter Tim Carpenter asks him about a vaccine mandate, Schmidt says, “The old expression is that you catch more flies with sugar than you do with vinegar. … I just think that these are individual decisions for individual citizens and not for a government mandate.” 

How well does that agree with the research?

A guest on Monday’s “1A” show from NPR, Lawrence Gostin, is a professor of global health law at Georgetown University. He said, “When groups do vaccine mandates, they get higher rates. … There are many studies that have shown that hospitals that require influenza vaccines have uniformly much higher rates of vaccination than those who do not. So vaccine mandates actually do work. But we need to do it compassionately.” 

My trust here goes to the scientist, rather than the politician.

Politicians — even if they are running for governor, as Schmidt is — should not be required to have public health expertise. For him to play the expert without the training is reckless. In the case of COVID, it’s not just reckless with a political issue, but with Kansans’ lives.

Furthermore, the attorney general’s litigation and its continued obstruction of public health mandates strips counties of political traction to institute any sort of a mandate, whether in schools, in workplaces or in public spaces.

Looking back on the past eight months since the vaccines have been available, it’s easy to see how public and private vaccine mandates could have prevented the re-emerging crisis. I often imagine the virus as a boxer saying, “I am going to give you one swing at me while I have my gloves down.” Our punch — without mandates — was feeble. And the virus is back with “delta” printed on its boxing gloves, unleashing a new round of gut punches and body blows.

Hearing Schmidt continue his campaign against mandates is maddening when public health studies prove mandates are effective. And yet, Schmidt says, “the instinct to mandate as a sort of necessary tool in order to respond to the pandemic has really been proven inadvisable.”  

Should we avoid publishing misleading comments from politicians who answer public health questions that demand expertise? Elected officials have been needlessly reckless when they know better, from former president Donald Trump to current president Joe Biden. Most politicians don’t have demonstrated knowledge on nuances of epidemiology, so perhaps we don’t even ask them the question, regardless of whether they have sway in an adjacent area. Maybe we shouldn’t ask public health questions of them, as they are so often wrong or misleading. 

I know this restraint isn’t much in the spirit of so much news media and podcasting in 2021. But maybe that’s the point. Less garbage in the public square might make the public square a bit more “boring,” but at least our shared space would be a bit more safe.

It is redistricting time

Chillin’ in the Statehouse, Aug. 18, 2021

Early in this episode, Jason Tidd says citizens should be “concerned” about gerrymandering during upcoming redistricting. That “concern” seems an understatement by the end of the episode. We should instead have our watchful eye on just how bizarre the shape of the gerrymandering will be.

In the episode, we hear stories of redistricting and the oddities that come out of drawing lines both to create equally sized districts and for maximum political advantage.

Oddly, the intensely political chatter between Tidd, Andrew Bahl and John Hanna of the Associated Press backs up the deeply damaging Supreme Court holding that gerrymandering is a political consideration and should be handled by the state legislatures and not the judiciary. Everything here is political: the power fights, the personal interests and the partisan warfare.

Hanna revisits the horror story of 2012 when judges drew lines that created electoral pandemonium, complete with a Thursday night unveiling via email. And he says that if the Republican coalition holds together during the current redistricting, that likely would prevent a court fight. However, if the Republicans fracture, he forecasts lawsuits and court battles.

Haskell School Paper Recognized for Defying University President

Up to Date, Aug. 17, 2021

School administrators need to be held in check.

That is the lesson of this episode of “Up To Date.” Steve Kraske interviews Jared Nally, a student from Haskell University, who tells of being censored and intimidated by school president Ronald Graham. Now, Nally is confident that the public discussion spurred by his reporting in The Indian Leader is what ousted Graham from power.

As if Nally’s reporting wasn’t impressive enough, his presence on the podcast shows how hard he has thought about the principles that buttress his rigorous reporting. And it all reminds us that school administrators are just like anyone in power: They demand watchdogs.

What did we miss? Email [email protected] to let us know of a Kansas-based audio program that would be interesting to Audio Astra readers.

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Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.

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