Chris Liddell: the NZ news media is not your laundromat

Or at least, it shouldn't be

It’s not a good time to be associated with Donald Trump, and so it’s probably not a good time to be White House Deputy Chief of Staff Chris Liddell.

But that hasn’t stopped the New Zealand news media from — wittingly or unwittingly — helping one of Donald Trump’s top lieutenants in his attempt to scrub his reputation clean from the fallout of Trump’s disastrous presidency. 

What’s going on here? And why would journalists and media publications opt to help someone who’s spent the last four years aiding and abetting a man who could charitably be described as the worst modern US president, and uncharitably (and accurately) as a fascist, would-be demagogue?

Well, most journalists probably aren’t thinking about it that way. In all likelihood, they’re just doing their jobs, trying to get a scoop on a guy who’s newsworthy for very good reasons. But the fact remains that, by being unguarded about how they report on Chris Liddell, our news media runs the risk of helping him launder his reputation.

But before we dive into that, we’d best go through some history.

Who is Chris Liddell, and why does it matter?

A former investment banker, Liddell’s CV reads like a laundry list of corporate climbing: he was CEO of building materials supplier Carter Holt Harvey (circa the leaky homes crisis), CFO of Microsoft, Vice Chairman of General Motors, and Chairman of Xero. He was also active in US politics, on the Republican side: he worked for the 2012 Romney presidential campaign as the executive director of transition planning, and director and treasurer of the Romney for President campaign. 

Of course, when you’re already one of the world’s most powerful people, other powerful people just kind of give you more power. While still working as Xero chairman, Liddell was shoulder-tapped for the position of “Assistant to the President for Strategic Initiatives” in the Trump administration. What this nebulous position was actually for, no-one seems to know, but unlike many other Trump administration members who quickly resigned or found themselves fired, Liddell hung around for a full four years, climbing as always. Today he rejoices in the lofty title of White House Deputy Chief of Staff, a role that reportedly entails daily contact with the President. Notably, he also serves as a member of the president’s Coronavirus Task Force. In a further success, in October 2020, Trump nominated him to be Secretary General of the OECD, which immediately attracted controversy — and a flurry of opinions from New Zealand media figures. We’ll come back to those soon. 

The end of history

On January 6, 2021 a mob, directly incited by Donald Trump, stormed the US Capitol. The world watched in horror. The reaction was swift: within 24 hours Trump was being repudiated by most former allies and enemies alike, and was banned by nearly every major social network from Twitter and Facebook to Pinterest and Pornhub. (At the time of writing, YouTube remains a hold-out.)

Around this time, it’s likely that Chris Liddell realised that a plumb job as head of one of the world’s most influential bodies, or any job at all, might now not be that easy to come by, and decided some reputation management was in order. 

A mere two days after the failed insurrection, Jonathan Milne, an editor at New Zealand news site Newsroom, saw fit to publish an article that could easily become a cornerstone of Liddell’s reputation laundering effort. 

The Newsroom article fails to mention any of the multiple controversies and outrages (Muslim bans, kids in cages, the coronavirus catastrophe, to name just the ones that spring to mind) that Liddell was undoubtedly privy to as a member of the Trump administration. There is no particular indication given in the article that Liddell was asked about any of them. The closest it comes is this bit: 

Of course. Liddell is doing the honourable thing. He’s staying on to help the transition to the Biden administration! Sure, he could have quit at any time, and he thought about leaving, but he can’t do that now!

Journalism of this type often tries to tiptoe the line of objectivity, but that’s not what’s going on here. If the article had left readers wondering what Milne really thought, it wouldn’t matter, because he took the time to tweet it right out:

The New Zealand Herald also published an article along similar lines, by NZME’s Head of Business, Fran O’Sullivan. However, unlike Milne, O’Sullivan has been a frequent Liddell booster: just witness this worshipful hagiography (mercifully paywalled) where she pats herself on the back for her foresight in a 2017 think-piece she wrote about Liddell’s appointment, while also quoting herself at length:

Here’s the fun part: O’Sullivan wrote that in October 2020, before Trump’s election loss, his refusal to concede, and the storming of the Capitol, but well after the administration’s many other crimes were extremely public knowledge.

Here’s a thought, O’Sullivan: perhaps the reason for the “moral outrage” aimed at Liddell is because the act of serving in the administration of a cruel despot is inherently morally outrageous, no matter how good he might be at hurling himself into the fastest-flowing river while simultaneously performing all seven habits of highly effective people? When the “scope of disruptive change” that Trump’s administration (not just Trump himself!) enacted includes separating refugee children from their parents (and subsequently losing track of them), attempting to ban members of an entire religion from entering the United States, and killing tens of thousands of Americans with a world-beatingly incompetent response to a pandemic?

Here’s the thing: if you look a bit past Milne’s editorialising and O’Sullivan’s overt fandom, it seems clear that Liddell’s actions are not those of a man laser-focused on doing the best possible handover to the Biden administration. Rather, they appear to be those of a guy flailing wildly to restore his reputation before it bottoms out somewhere near the Earth’s molten core. We know this because Liddell (in addition to taking calls from journalists at this busy, busy time) has engaged PR firm SweenyVesty to broker interviews.

Lobbyist and NZ Herald columnist Matthew Hooton, who has been vocal in recent days for the need for former Trump administration officials to be held accountable for their misdeeds, has put his account up on Facebook, and it makes for unsettling reading:

Does this mean that Fran O’Sullivan and Jonathan Milne are writing about Liddell because they’ve been approached by a PR agency? Apparently not. Both say they approached Liddell independently, and there’s no reason not to believe them: he’s a public figure of particular interest, and they are journalists.

Milne has since written “Trump’s man tries to avoid burning bridges,” a follow-up of sorts to his original piece. In this, he indirectly addresses criticism that he didn’t put the hard questions to Liddell: he says he did, and Liddell essentially said “No comment — but only because I’m so very professional, you see.”

So, that’s the net result: hard questions or not, PR meddling or not: Milne’s piece (and its expansion by way of explanation) still serves Liddell’s agenda, where he’s the hard-done good guy who’s only trying his best to manage a madhouse, and he'd still do a great job at whatever comes next, please and thank you.

Journalists shouldn’t let themselves be used this way. Approaching Liddell upfront only to pen half-news, half-opinion puff pieces that ultimately help polish his tarnished reputation, is, in my opinion, as bad or worse than writing after being approached by a PR agency. They may not mean to, but these publications and journalists are helping this utterly complicit Trump administration official for free.

It doesn’t really matter if they’re not trying to help Liddell, they still are. This reflects appallingly on them. At a time when Trump administration officials are being publicly called out by US journalists and publishers for being complicit in the administration’s endless mendacity, our news media is embarrassing itself. If our journalists can’t manage to hold Liddell to account for his high-ranking role in Trump’s disastrous, criminal administration, then they shouldn’t be writing about him at all. Instead, he should be allowed to sink in disgrace, carried away by his last fastest-flowing river.

This is my first go at this Stubsack thing. If you liked whatever that was, please tell your friends, and annoy your enemies.