A Damn Fool Journalist And Why That Is
The Life and Death of Gonzalo Lira, and the Crossing of a Line
“We have shared the incommunicable experience of war, we have felt, we still feel, the passion of life to its top. In our youth our hearts were touched with fire.”
― Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
I really do miss the 20th Century.
Yes, I know. I say that a lot. Too much probably. But I mean it.
Even though the years 1900 to 1999 are considered some of the most blood-soaked, violent, and hate-filled decades in human history, there was a lot more class. Be it good guys or bad guys. Those doing the killing; those doing the dying; or those just reporting on the whole mess, everyone had a lot more class.
People had a lot more tact, manners, and dignity as well. If a member of the Schutzstaffel (known to history as the SS) was going to shoot someone in the head he’d certainly dress for the occasion. Crisp, clean Hugo Boss-made uniform that looked like it came right out of the box. A polite, Prussian-style clicking of freshly polished boots as one was asked to please turn around and get down on their knees. A respectful distance being kept so as to not be perceived as rude, and to limit blood splatter that might stain one’s uniform.
Some executioners of that century often wore top hats, which they would respectfully remove and then bow their heads before flipping a switch, dropping a blade, opening a trap door, or whatever means they employed to earn their paycheck. It’s one thing to kill someone, it’s another to be uncivilized about it.
Not so these days, as any morning perusal on the Internet will so obviously demonstrate. And as the 21st Century is shaping up to outdo the 20th in both brutality and body count, the lack of civility, tact, and dignity that people literally took to their mass graves in the 1900s is going to be missed. We now find ourselves in an age where the living could end up envying the long-dead.
The same goes for the institution of journalism, or what’s left of it. The reporting of information to an audience of fellow citizens hungry to know what’s going on is, and always was, a peculiar institution. Those engaged in it have always operated by a very different set of standards and beliefs than the typical man on the street. They had to. Because nobody truly normal, or arguably sane, would ever get into such a business.
Shortly after the news came out that Gonzalo Lira had died while serving a prison sentence in Ukraine for his YouTube videos, I discussed his case with someone who had also spent a great deal of his career overseas. Like myself, he admired Lira’s reporting from Ukraine but told me he thought the man was “a damn fool” for staying in the country as long as he did. I found the remark a little surprising but quite forgivable, as he and most people have never lived the lifestyle that Lira embraced: that of the foreign correspondent. A journalist in a faraway land living on the edge.
Most people instinctively avoid danger, and rightfully so. Dangerous situations can get you killed and erase your DNA from the gene pool. Survival and propagation are the main objectives of all life forms, and avoiding that responsibility tends to put one in the “not normal” category. But there are some people, some professions, where one needs to be in “The Danger Zone” much of the time. A job where every morning one gets up wondering if that day will be their last, or if they’ll still be gainfully employed by the end of it. And among these many professions is that of the foreign correspondent.
Most people only get to see these rare creatures on a video screen or learn their names when they read an article from some far-off corner of the world. But seldom does anyone ever get to meet one, or at least of the variety I used to run with.
To many people, it might seem like a romantic lifestyle. Getting to visit and live in all sorts of exotic places the average person will never see or experience in any meaningful way. To write about and/or record and broadcast the goings-on in a nation that may be in turmoil or engaged in an all-out war certainly does sound exciting, and it can be. But it’s not romantic, it’s addictive.
When someone listens to a recording of Mozart's music, one usually does so for pure pleasure. To escape from the insanity of the world and relax and listen to heavenly sounds that came from the mind and soul of one of history’s musical geniuses. Never does anyone talk about the man, just his music.
In reality, Mozart, as a man, was a real mess. Crude and irresponsible, used and abused by his family and friends as he used and abused them. The Classical composer craved luxury and pleasure along with the rest of the “artist class” of his time, and the popularity of his music and ability to compose on command made such a lifestyle possible — at least for a while. He died penniless, ignored, and in agony at the age of 35.
And yet today we still listen to Mozart’s music in awe and wonder and conveniently ignore the shortcomings and often miserable existence of the man who produced it. Why? Because what the man produced for eternity goes far beyond who he was in life.
Writers are much the same. But many are not of the “artist class,” especially if you’re in the journalism end of the pool. Few ever get invited to parties where white wine and cheese are served. You’re blue-collar. A sheet metal worker with a keyboard. Your job is to produce, and produce, and produce. Not anything physical, like a car body or an aircraft component, but text. Lots and lots of text in a manner and style almost anyone can understand and comprehend. You work day in and day out and don’t complain. You’re on call 24/7 for months, if not years, on end. It doesn’t matter if you’re in some exotic locale, or your employer has (temporarily) put you up in a five-star hotel, your life is your job. And like your brother sheet metal workers off in a factory someplace, when you get the chance to blow off steam you do so with gusto.
Foreign correspondents drink, somewhat hard at times. Especially if they’ve pissed off local authorities, celebrities, or warlords over something they’ve written or broadcast and are concerned for their safety, although they’d never admit it to anyone, including themselves.
Their host governments always hate them, without exception. A foreign correspondent is not there to report intercultural exchanges or a new book published in the local language. He’s there to dig up the dirt and spit it out to the world. To find the skeletons in the closet, sometimes literally. When you’re a foreign correspondent you’re not a gentleman, you're a journalist. Big difference.
Relationships are also a problem with foreign correspondents. Relatively few are married or stay that way for very long. The unstable hours, unstable lifestyle, and often unstable income do not for a peaceful household make. Adventure and romance do not compensate for missed birthdays, missed anniversaries, canceled vacations, and calls in the middle of the night demanding a fresh story be filed within an hour. No. A life with no such issues or challenges is for regular, normal people. Not you. Women, wives, and mothers instinctively want safety and security. Not you.
Thus, one gets a little love where one can. Often with curious locals smitten by the exotic man from afar who can be conveniently forgotten after a brief fling. Sometimes with colleagues who are in the same situation, and just as lonely, scared, and addicted to living a life on the edge.
Men tend to endure the lifestyle better than women. The ladies go from being drop-dead gorgeous, adventurous 20-somethings to crones far more quickly than their civilian counterparts. No children most of the time. Only the memories of their careers to keep them company after the years in the spotlight have ended, and this reporter has known more than a few who died alone and forgotten. Their names only to be found in newspaper or video archives seldom read or seen.
Their male counterparts, often destined for a similar fate, hear of their passings as the years go by. Upon receiving the news of an old colleague, old friend, or old flame leaving this world, the survivor lets out a nearly inaudible sigh nobody else can hear. A private eulogy for someone from all those years of long ago, and far away.
Living a life on the edge has a price. Even the bravest and most capable of adventurers can end up as a pile of moldy bones on the floor of an ancient temple, to be discovered by explorers many years after their passing — and not just metaphorically.
When it comes to journalism, the technologies have changed, as have the business models. Broadcasters have been replaced with podcasters and streamers or vloggers. Readers have been replaced with followers. But the mission is still the same: feed the goat. Produce copy. Report the news. And tell people how the information you’re providing will affect them. But above all, get the facts straight and the story right.
Sadly, that last part most “news people” working for “The Legacy Media” fail at miserably. This is why the individual, one-man news source reporting via social media, podcast, or direct email has become the more reliable conduit for information. However, many people who take on the role of “citizen journalist” don’t have much of a background and little or no training in the traditions of the profession. They just mimic what the Legacy Media has been up to, which is not what’s needed. Or, worse, they just babble on for hours and hours while effectively saying very little. The ego has taken over, and they're more into themselves than into their audience.
New technologies and methods require new ways of doing things, along with new procedures and processes. And in this Internet-centric age, a new type of journalist is also needed. Yet the more things change the more things stay the same. Many of us just fell into the profession, as is often the case, and did so because the profession chose us, not the other way around. Enter Gonzalo Lira and his coverage of the war in Ukraine.
The American-born, U.S./Chilean duel national had an extensive media background. An author of books and producer of films, Lira had quite a resume before he took to the world of Internet Vlogging. He used the moniker Coach Red Pill in his early YouTube appearances, where he dispensed dating and relationship advice for men trying to figure out and deal with modern women — a needed but somewhat challenging mission, to say the least. For some, he came off as a misogynist. To others, he was a realist providing strategies to navigate the sad realities of our time. The reader should check out his material and decide for themselves. But his greatest contribution is what he produced at the end of his career and, as it would turn out, his life: Lira’s reporting and analysis of the Russian-Ukrainian War.
Lira had married a Ukrainian woman and started a family. He was living in the country when the Russians rolled across the border in 2022. And that’s when he began reporting on what was going on around him. This is often how people get pulled into the profession, as was the case with many Americans who became foreign correspondents because they were traveling around Europe in 1939 when Germany rolled into Poland. If you were a Yank, could operate a typewriter, and were reasonably educated, you could get hired on the spot by a newspaper, wire service, or radio network. And many such wartime urgent hires went on to have decades-long, illustrious careers.
For someone with a background in media, Lira’s presentation and production methods were somewhat crude. He just plugged in some small headphones, spoke into the camera of a laptop, and chatted away while smoking a cigarette and sipping (what seemed to be) coffee. But the man did come across as knowing what he was talking about and he was there on the ground, Not reading wire copy thousands of miles away. He was there, and that makes a very big difference.
Lira’s information was fresh and, it would turn out, far more reliable than anything the Legacy Media was producing. His analysis and research were excellent and, as time has passed, has proved to be quite accurate. But it also went against the narrative coming out of Washington and Kiev. The man named names of who was doing what, along with details as to why the war happened in the first place. Lira explained the corruption of the Zelensky regime and the complacency of the Biden Administration. He reported and provided commentary on what was going on in and about Ukraine and detailed the progression of the country’s war with Russia in brutal, unforgiving detail.
Lira’s audience grew, as did his influence. Unfortunately, corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, be they Ukrainian or American, don’t like people of influence contradicting their narrative. Especially if hundreds of billions of dollars in economic and military aid are at stake.
In an earlier, more civilized age, someone like Lira would have been considered a nuisance at best. He would be harassed by the local authorities, possibly taken into custody, and then roughed up a bit. What would happen next would be a single phone call from the American Embassy to whatever self-indulgent despot was running what passed for a country. The embassy official would then remind the head of the vassal state where they got their money, their weapons, and who was really in charge. The offending journalist would then be unceremoniously brought to the airport and deported. Problem solved.
At one time, even the most tyrannical, violent, and corrupt regime the U.S. Government was propping up (and there have been many over the decades) would not dare seriously hurt or kill an American citizen — especially a journalist. That was a line that legally, and politically, any and all “allies” of Uncle Sam could not, would not, and must not, cross. At least until January of 2024.
It has been reported that Lira died of physical maladies resulting from his imprisonment. Had he not been in a prison, or what has been reported to have been a labor camp, the man would be alive today and everyone knows it. No American citizen — no human being — deserves to have their life taken away because of their opinion or thoughts. Personality, personal traits, politics, viewpoints, spiritual or religious views, relationship history, or anything else be damned. Nobody, nobody deserves what happened to Gonzalo Lira. NOBODY.
Yet it happened, and the United States Government — the United States Department of State — stood by and did nothing as one of their citizens was killed by a so-called ally being propped up and financed by the American Taxpayer. And to many of us with eyes and ears and brains it sure does look like the Biden Administration wanted to see Lira dead. Not just gone. Not just silenced. Dead.
Lira was very blunt in his options and had an “I don’t give a damn” attitude towards tweaking the nose of the dragon. Some have even speculated he had a death wish, but I don’t think that was the case. Lira had taken on the mantel of the foreign correspondent, even though he wasn’t formally employed by any news organization. He was taken over by a driving force that runs deep down into the marrow of the bones that those of us who’ve been in that line of work know oh so well. The DNA-like seeking of the truth about something, and then the exhilaration of telling the world all about it. The incommunicable experience of real journalism.
For someone without a formal news reporting background, Lira did his job very well. I found his regular reports excellent. They were very informative and mostly to the point, although a bit crude in presentation. His sign-off line “Know what’s going on” became very familiar to his many thousands of followers. Had he gotten out of Ukraine alive, I believe Lira could have made it to a very high level of podcaster/streamer popularity. Perhaps with millions of followers. But it was not to be.
In his last video, the one he made this past July as he was planning to make a break for the Hungarian border, you could see the look in his eyes. He was frightened and admitted as much to his audience. Lira was saying goodbye, and he knew it would probably be the last time he would be able to speak publicly. The man’s addiction to bringing the truth to others would cost him everything, and that was reality hitting home.
Lira didn’t want to die. You could see that. He wanted to be with his family again. He wanted to see his children. Perhaps his father as well; the man he was estranged from but who fought valiantly to win his son’s freedom. All that must have been running through his head as he was about to get on his motorcycle for the last time, and head down the road into what would turn out to be the waiting arms of the Ukrainian authorities. A ride into the last sunset he would ever see as a free man.
Before he signed off, Lira spoke from the heart to his YouTube audience. Gone was the don’t-give-a-damn attitude. No smirk and smile. This was Lira the Humbled. A sincere man who knew he was probably facing torture and probable death. And of his audience, he made a final request. An appeal:
“The genesis of this whole situation was because I had an opinion that went against the narrative. That’s why I went to prison. That’s why, if I’m arrested again, I will die in prison. So I ask you please, as many people as possible. . . the American State Department knows exactly who I am and the situation I’m currently involved in, and the fate that awaits me. They know it.”
“You know, they have a saying — I forget the wording exactly — I’m a little stressed out as you can imagine. But they have a saying that ‘People are fundamentally good but for evil to triumph all you need is the indifference of good people.’ Please don’t be indifferent to my fate. I ask you this very humbly. Please recognize the, well, literal death that awaits me if this doesn’t work out.”
Gonzalo then looked off into the distance for a thoughtful moment. He then turned his head back to the camera as he dropped his somber look, and broke into a wide, brimming grin. He then said, for the last time “Know what’s going on.”
Then he was gone. Forever.
Yes. Journalists are fools. Damn fools. Especially those who dwell in foreign lands far away from family, friends, and familiar surroundings. But those fools do live life and experience things few who hear or read their words ever will.
Such men and women risk much to bring the truth to countless people they will never meet, and some of them pay a heavy price for their labor. Gonzalo Lira paid with his life.
Rest in Peace Gonzalo. You made a difference. Time will tell how much of a difference you made, as will the people who will choose not to be indifferent to your fate.
Good night Sweet Prince: And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!
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