Parsing “factual shortcuts”

“Factual shortcuts” was the phrase of the day after Paul Ryan’s speech at the Republican convention last week.  It was how AP characterized statements he made about the Medicare cuts, the closing of a GM plants, etc. Many other outlets reprinted the story and the characterization, so it received huge play in the media.

It’s an interesting phrase.  Clearly someone at AP had to think hard to come up with something that was softer than “lies” but stronger than “misstatement” or “inaccuracy” or “questionable claims”. It drove Andrew Sullivan nuts:

“Factual shortcuts” are newspeak for lies. Zack Beauchamp goes nuts at the media euphemisms for lies. I think they should call them “enhanced campaigning techniques.”

Daily Kos snarked:

What is a “factual shortcut”? Does that mean that you were on your way towards a fact, but then decided to hop a fence and cut through Cow Patty Fields?

It really does seem to be a neologism.  Google only gives hits related to the AP usage.  Google Ngram Viewer doesn’t show any occurrences through 2008.  So somebody just added an idiom to the language!

But why bother?  We already have a perfectly good phrase that says pretty much the same thing.  You could say “Ryan’s speech played fast and loose with the facts” and people would understand you perfectly.  And Kos is right–the phrase doesn’t really make any sense.  It seems to rely on an implied negative connotation to the word “shortcut”, as in “there are no shortcuts to success” or similar phrases.  But where is the shortcut in factual shortcuts?  Where are you heading when you take a factual shortcut?  It sounds like a quick and perhaps morally dubious way of reaching a fact.  But of course its meaning is exactly the opposite — it’s a way of avoiding a fact.

I suppose the phrase was formed by analogy with “ethical shortcut,” which is a morally dubious way of resolving an ethical challenge.  So, a “factual shortcut” is a morally dubious way of dealing with a fact–by twisting it in some way so that it means something different from what ordinary people would recognize as the truth.  In this interpretation, Ryan didn’t say anything that you could directly point to as a lie, but if people had all the facts, instead of the ones he twisted, a different reality would emerge.

OK, that’s the best I can do.  Ultimately an idiom doesn’t have to make sense.  I don’t really know what the literal meaning of “play fast and loose” is, but I understand it well enough.

Still, it would be helpful if the mainstream media could bring itself to utter the word lies.

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