In a Web-only piece for Time, John F. Dickerson challenges an assertion in Taking Heat, a White House memoir by former press secretary Ari Fleischer, about press coverage of the “long count” at the close of the 2000 presidential election. Fleischer, who of course thinks the press was biased against George W. Bush, writes,
In the coverage of the president’s court victory, two words jumped out at me—closely divided. Every network and all the major newspaper accounts accurately noted that the ruling came from a closely divided Supreme Court. The Court did rule 5-4, after all. … But four days earlier, on December 8, the Florida Supreme Court had delivered a major victory to Al Gore in a 4-3 ruling that could have made the former Vice President the forty-third president of the United States. Looking back at the coverage of that ruling, it’s hard to find many references to a “closely divided” court.
He can’t have been looking very hard. I performed a database search on Nexis for Nov. 8-15, 2000, using the phrases “Florida Supreme Court” and “closely divided” and the words “Bush” and “Gore.” There were 85. If you removed the “Florida,” you got more—151—but that may just show that more news stories got written about the decision in the U.S. Supreme Court than about the decision in the Florida Supreme Court. That would make sense, because it was the national Supremes (not the Florida ones) who decided the election.
In his Time piece, Dickerson supplies some microanalysis of Fleischer’s “closely divided” claim. Fleischer’s book cites as an example a next-day Washington Post story about the Florida Supreme Court’s decision in which the phrase “closely divided” did not appear. But, that, Dickerson points out, was a sidebar that ran deep inside the paper. The Post’s lead story about the Florida Supreme Court decision—the story that ran on Page One—made reference to a “bitterly divided court.”