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Media Sommelier

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Ryan Vellinga

Links with top notes of commentary and whimsy

  1. Listen. “People just want to forget about it. I mean, this is Iraq we’re talking about — we shouldn’t have been there to begin with.” That’s Elena Kennison-Zurheide, the widow of Marine Lance Corporal Robert Zurheide, talking to NPR’s Pentagon Correspondent Tom Bowman and Graham Smith of the Investigations unit for their podcast Taking Cover. Kennison-Zurheide is talking to the two producers about grieving her husband, who was killed in Baghdad in 2004; her friends and family eventually tired of her processing what had happened. But she could just as well have been describing the friendly-fire accident that took her husband’s life, since the government subsequently covered it up (or so it seems, from the three episodes of the series that have dropped so far). She could also have been describing the overall attitude of most Americans on the 20th anniversary of the invasion. While news outlets grappled with how to best to cover the terrible occasion that no one wants to commemorate, the public — if my social media feeds are any indication — showed little interest in any coverage at all. If you do want to reflect on the war, though, then this is a good place to start. The producers are as thorough in their reporting as they are empathetic with the Marines and family members that they invite to relive a terrible tragedy. And the larger question — What happened? — looms symbolically, a reminder that we are condemned to repeat past mistakes swept under the rug.

  2. Read. Fentanyl remains in national headlines — most recently due to the emergence of a fentanyl-pet sedative blend called “tranq,” whose persistent use causes gruesome flesh wounds. Not only is Las Vegas not immune to the growing fentanyl crisis, but, what’s worse, it figures into the drug’s U.S. expansion by acting as a minor hub on the route from Mexico, through San Diego and L.A., to the Southwest and beyond. This is one takeaway from the Washington Post’s December, 2022, feature  “A DEA agent tracked the source of fentanyl in Mormon country — a Mexican cartel,” by Kevin Sieff. The story takes place in our neighbor to the northeast, St. George, Utah, where a population explosion converges with a Mexican drug cartel expansion to produce sad and deadly results. Although the story has as happy an ending as such tragedies can (the main drug importer/dealer is arrested and convicted), it ends on a cautionary note. And since Las Vegas finds itself on “America’s main fentanyl artery, Interstate 15,” you can be sure this one drug bust is not the end of the story. (Interesting side note: You may recognize the name of the story’s photographer, Las Vegas’ own Rona Churchill, from the pages of Desert Companion!)

  3. Read, then watch. Okay, for something a little more fun, please enjoy James David Patrick’s article, 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Dark City: 25 Picks for 25 Years of DVD Netflix, from the Netflix blog. As a solid Gen-Xer, I haven’t just watched many of Patrick’s recommended movies multiple times each — they were also the highlights of the era when I came into my own as an independent film fan. A couple, Run Lola Run by Tom Twyker and A Simple Plan by Sam Raimi, remain in my 10 all-time favorites; a couple others significantly changed the way I saw movies — such as Darren Aronofsky’s Pi and Paul Schrader’s Affliction. Still others would make me a lifelong fan of their directors (Joel Cohen, of The Big Lebowski, and Wes Anderson, of Rushmore). If these titles are striking sentimental notes in your inner DVD hoarder, then you’ll love the rest of the romp down movie memory lane. And for a more local take on the same theme — but with multiple years — check out Awesome Movie Year podcast on Twitter @awesomemoviepod, by Josh Bell and Jason Harris (also Desert Companion contributors).

  4. Read. Speaking of awakening sublimated identities, my inner reporter experienced a weird combination of rage and admiration reading Wyatt Myskow’s recent story for Inside Climate News, Las Vegas is Counting on Public Lands to Power Its Growth. Is it a good idea? “Rage,” because this was a story I both regularly covered as a Nevada Public Radio writer/producer and deeply care about as an environmentally concerned Southern Nevada citizen. “Admiration,” because … damn! Myskow did a great job with it. It’s the feeling of retiring a favorite pen, only to see someone else pick it up and write an opus. Long opus short: The Clark County lands bill ... er, SNEDCA ... is back. If you’re a concerned citizen, too, you probably know what that means. If you don’t, this is the story to explain it.

  5. Listen. In 2020, I had the good fortune of working with Fil Corbitt on Severance Radio: A Nevada Reads Book Club. Corbitt was behind the scenes on that project, engineering and editing, so I was delighted to hear them in front of the mic on “Whip Law,” an episode from their podcast The Wind that aired on last weekend’s Snap Judgment by PRX. The 53-minute story profiles a fascinating subculture of bullwhip makers and crackers in downtown Reno, and recounts the crusade to outlaw the practice. Corbitt spent months getting inside the community of mostly unsheltered people, listening to them talk about how learning to braid and communicate with the whips had rescued them from anxiety, fear, and loneliness. That’s paralleled with city officials’ effort to manage the hundreds of complaints coming from annoyed residents within earshot of the gunshot-like noise. “It breaks more than the sound barrier,” says one whip-maker, Spooks, perhaps unwittingly summing up the conflict between him and his more privileged neighbors. “It breaks … realities.”
Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2018, she was promoted to senior writer and producer, working for both DC and State of Nevada. She produced KNPR’s first podcast, the Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning Native Nevada, in 2020. The following year, she returned her focus full-time to Desert Companion, becoming Deputy Editor, which meant she was next in line to take over when longtime editor Andrew Kiraly left in July 2022.