Election years are full of hackneyed phrases, but my new favorite is the compound adjective "high information," used with or without a hyphen to compliment people for being unusually diligent readers or viewers.
Andrew Sullivan supplied a recent example of that usage when he capped a blog entry about President Obama's first debate performance by using "high information" as a spoonful of sugar to help the failure go down: "Look: you know how much I love the guy, and you know how much of a high information viewer I am," Sullivan reassured readers, before going on to explain why he thought that first debate was a "rolling calamity" for Democrats. Chris Matthews of MSNBC was more subtle (!) when he suggested that the president ought to start watching that unabashedly progressive TV network because he would "learn something every night."
That assertion only makes sense in the alternate universe where commentary from progressive pundits turns Barack Obama into a "high-information candidate" for the office he already holds, presumably helping him counterpunch when challenged by the increasingly presidential Mitt Romney or the few journalists daring enough to ask follow-up questions. In praising his own network, Chris Matthews did not mean that anyone should gather information hither and yon without the protection of ideological filters: after all, the gatekeepers of MSNBC are not the people asking hard questions about security at American consulates in Libya or federally-sanctioned gunrunning to Mexican drug cartels.
Although left-leaning pundits tend to use it more frequently, "high information" is not a label over which they have a monopoly. On the evidence of her recent Wall Street Journal column extending a golf clap to Mr. Romney from "out on a limb, where the breeze is best," the ever-graceful but often scattershot Peggy Noonan fancies herself a high-information voter, too: informed enough, for example, to give unsolicited advice to the Romney campaign (In that particular column, it was "Watch out for Big Bird").
Is there any gentle way to tell Peg that Big Bird was yesterday's news even in Mitt Romney's debate aside? Unwilling to look beyond the feathers, Noonan never recognized Romney's quip for the opportunity that it was. If, after a debate about economic policy, you want to write about Muppets, then why not name-check the Capo de tutti capi instead? Noonan said nothing about how President Obama has been trying to turn "Kermit T. Frog" into a flippered hypocrite. Fortunately, Republican standard bearers seem to have noticed that it's a lot easier being green than it used to be, now that every lily pad sags under a pile of federal stimulus dollars. Can U.S. taxpayer funding for electric cars in Finland and windmills in China be called anything other than cronyism? Well, sure, if we're all "citizens of the world."
Yet when VP candidate Paul Ryan referred to "green pork" in his debate with Vice-President Joe Biden, all Smilin' Joe could sputter in reply was that "Four percent of those green jobs didn't go under -- went under, didn't work." That garbled figure and its date for the evening (a sneer about how President Obama's green investments enjoy "a better batting average than investment bankers have") lost credibility because Joe Biden had already told several lies by the time he sprang confusedly to the defense of his boss's energy priorities.
Even among policy wonks, smooth recourse to figures does not always help, and that is why "high information" is an especially mischievous kind of label. Welcomed with too much enthusiasm, that compliment discourages introspection and subverts accountability.
Mercifully, the actor who shills for Mexican beer as the "Most Interesting Man in the World" has not indulged his ego enough to say "I do not always vote, but when I vote, I make informed choices." Joe Biden could take lessons from that ad campaign. Humility about the limits of the data available to him while improvising against a man who would not be cowed might have kept the vice president from misstating tax increase thresholds, contradicting his own bishop about the impact of Health and Human Services mandates on the Catholic Church, claiming that the timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan was proposed by the Joint Chiefs, and fumbling his allusion to a quip about John F. Kennedy that worked exactly one time two generations ago.
Beyond the impediment that any empty compliment poses to self-analysis, pundits and spokesmen trying to paint a contrast between news consumers and the rubes who wouldn't know CNN from MSNBC often use flattery to obscure honest descriptions like "rabidly partisan." Let's not forget that it is Barack Obama and Joe Biden, "high information" men in the top two offices of the executive branch, who threw the State Department and the CIA under the bus as soon as they realized that the all-too-foreseeable murder of four Americans on American soil in Libya posed a political problem that lip service to fact-finding could not solve. Is this administration looking for more information in Benghazi (or anywhere else, for that matter)? Don't bet on that. What we have seen and heard and so far suggests that President Obama and his enablers have analyzed the information they already have, and decided to duck and cover.