Members of the president’s own party appear to have been taken in by the spin as well. Earlier this month, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner had to, as New York’s Jonathan Chait put it, “break out the hand puppets and head up to Capitol Hill for a quick lesson.” According to Politico, “Geithner tried to assuage concerns by telling Democrats that the president’s plan would ensure that all taxpayers would pay the lower tax rates on their first $250,000 of income—and they would be hit with higher tax rates only for earned income over that threshold.” Conversely, Republicans who support extending all the Bush tax cuts have no incentive to correct Obama or the Democrats when they exaggerate the extent to which taxes would be increased on wealthy Americans.

Misunderstandings among political elites are no excuse, however. The misreporting of this story reflects two key weaknesses of political journalism—a lack of policy expertise and a weakness for narrative. Too many journalists don’t understand the tax code or other aspects of budget or fiscal policy especially well. Moreover, they have little incentive to add nuance or detail to their stories given the overwhelming priority given to dramatizing political conflict in entertaining ways. The idea that Obama would raise taxes on all income earned by the wealthy feeds perfectly into the spin from both campaigns. Why complicate things?

Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at and tweets @BrendanNyhan.