Yesterday the Romney campaign distributed a memo to reporters that attacked Obama’s record on jobs as a “failure.” To support this conclusion, the memo cited, among other things, the “net” job loss that has occurred on Obama’s watch.

“In January 2009, some 22 million Americans were unemployed, underemployed, or no longer looking for work. Today, that number has risen to nearly 24 million Americans,” the memo said. “Nearly 1.7 million jobs have been lost.”

This use of that “net” job loss number, which is technically true in the most narrow sense, is at best highly misleading and dishonest. That’s because it factors in the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of jobs the economy was hemorraghing in the months just after Obama took office, when the economy was in free fall — before Obama’s policies kicked in. Yet the Romney camp has again and again presented this “net” job loss number as proof that those same policies have failed.

Today on CNN, Candy Crowley confronted David Axelrod with this same number — and presented it as a meaningful one, just as the Romney camp continues to do. Per CNN’s transcript, she asked whether it explaines why Romney is polling better on the economy than Obama is:

CROWLEY: Couldn’t that huge gap, which is a pretty big gap between those who think he can handle the economy, as opposed to Mitt Romney, couldn’t it also be that from the day — from the month the president took office, we still have 1.7 million fewer jobs ... in the marketplace.

AXELROD: You know what, I’m happy to have that discussion. Do you know that when he was campaigning for president in 2007 and 2008, Governor Romney had nothing but praise for the economic policies that were in place at that time, as America was sliding into the worst recession since the Great Depression, after eight years in which we…

CROWLEY: But this isn’t Romney, this is a fact.

Yes, that is a fact — one that the Romney campaign repeats again and again — but it’s being used in a highly misleading way. And it’s a bit surprising to see a neutral journalist validating this use of it. I hope Crowley takes a look at at Paul Krugman’s explanation and chart, which details how absurd it is to use this figure in isolation as a metric to judge Obama’s policies and as evidence that they destroyed jobs. Indeed, the statistics show that once the stimulus passed, private sector job loss declined from month to month and turned around in the spring of 2010, after which there have been over 20 straight months of private sector job growth. Crowley might also check out Steve Benen’s charts, which make all this very simple to understand.

There’s no denying that Obama’s policies have not engineered the recovery as fast as we would have hoped, and by all means, Obama advisers should be pressed on that. But the Romney campaign’s ongoing use of this figure in this way is just absurd. Journalists like Crowley really should be pressing the Romney campaign on why their “net” job loss figure proves Obama’s policies failed, when the metric it uses includes so many jobs lost before those policies kicked in. This claim, which has become central to Romney’s whole argument, deserves scrutiny, not uncritical amplification. You can bet that Romney aides broke out high fives when Crowley echoed it on national television. If this is how this debate is going to be covered, it’s going to be a very long campaign.