Fact: AP Unclear on Definition of ‘Fact’

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Myth: We suck. FACT: You suck. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/2012 Getty Images

This Associated Press “fact check” of Bill Clinton’s speech last night has attracted a fair amount of Internet abuse, but not nearly enough. It’s not only a prime specimen of journalistic idiocy — it’s one of those documents that reveals the incredibly blinkered quality of conventional wisdom, so contemptuous of facts that challenge its assumptions.

The broad conceit of the piece rests upon a complete inability to distinguish facts from opinion, manifesting itself most hilariously in this refutation of Clinton’s argument:

CLINTON: "Their campaign pollster said, 'We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.' Now that is true. I couldn't have said it better myself — I just hope you remember that every time you see the ad."

THE FACTS: Clinton, who famously finger-wagged a denial on national television about his sexual relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky and was subsequently impeached in the House on a perjury charge, has had his own uncomfortable moments over telling the truth.

This “fact” has gotten the most ridicule, but in defense of the AP, it is at least true that this is a fact: Bill Clinton did lie about his affair. It’s not a fact that in any way refutes what Clinton said, but it is a fact.

The same cannot be said of nearly anything else in the piece. Clinton noted, “Health care spending has grown under 4 percent, for the first time in 50 years.” But the AP says “the facts” suggest otherwise:

THE FACTS: That's wishful thinking at best. The nation's total health care tab has been growing at historically low rates, but most experts attribute that to continued uncertainty over the economy, not to Obama's health care law.

Actually, experts say the slowdown in health-care costs cannot be explained solely by the recession.

More “fact”:

CLINTON: "I know many Americans are still angry and frustrated with the economy ... I experienced the same thing in 1994 and early 1995. Our policies were working but most people didn't feel it yet. By 1996, the economy was roaring, halfway through the longest peacetime expansion in American history."

THE FACTS: Clinton is counting on voters to recall the 1990s wistfully and to cast a vote for Obama in hopes of replicating those days in a second term. But Clinton leaves out the abrupt downward turn the economy took near the end of his own second term and the role his policies played in the setting the stage for the historic financial meltdown of 2008.

It’s not even clear what this fact is refuting. Clinton described the nineties as “the longest peacetime expansion in American history.” Pointing out that it eventually ended does not refute this.

For instance, Clinton argued that the Republican party has come to be dominated by a faction of conservatives who oppose compromise. But “the facts” say otherwise!

THE FACTS: Boehner couldn't sell the plan to tea party factions in the House or to other conservative activists. And Obama found himself accused of going too far by some Democratic leaders …

THE FACTS: The problem with compromising in Washington is that there are few true moderates left in either party. The notion that Republicans are the only ones standing in the way of compromise is inaccurate.

Yes, some Democrats thought the Obama-Boehner budget deal went too far. If they loved the deal, then it wouldn’t have been a compromise, would it? But Democratic opposition didn’t kill the deal. Obama has said that the House and Senate Democratic leadership supported the agreement and promised to round up enough votes, and nobody has contradicted this account. It also happens to be the case that political scientists have found dramatically higher move away from the center by Republicans in Congress than Democrats. In this case, the actual facts contradict the general idea that is the bedrock of conventional wisdom — both parties must always be at fault — and so the AP refutes them by inventing completely untrue facts to suit preferable legend.