Chamber Rejects Use of Term "3 Million Members"

| Fri Oct. 23, 2009 4:21 PM EDT

For the first time, the US Chamber of Commerce has admitted that its membership should be reported at one tenth the size that many major media outlets have listed it for more than a decade.

In an interview on Friday, Greg Marx of the Columbia Journalism Review asked Chamber spokesman Eric Wohlschlegel to comment on two competing newspaper accounts. Presented with a Wall Street Journal article that said the Chamber claims "300,000 members," Wohlschlegel said, "That's accurate." Read an Associated Press article that said the Chamber claims "a membership of 3 million," he responded, "That's not exactly reported correctly."

The second statement appears to be a reversal for Wohlschlegel, who, in September, told the New York Times: "We have over 3 million members."

Last week, after Mother Jones first questioned the accuracy of the Chamber's claim to represent "3 million members," the group backed off the number in public statements. It then sought to distinguish between the meaning of two figures and argued that it has long used both in the proper context. Yesterday a Chamber representative acknowledged that the 3 million number often gets reported "without qualification." And yet today is the first time the Chamber has publicly characterized the reporting of the larger membership figure as inaccurate.

The Chamber's response to the controversy, which has been reported in the Washington Post, Politico, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Harper's, MSNBC, and numerous blogs, appears aimed at shifting blame for the inflated membership number to journalists. The Chamber's website claims that it "represents" 3 million businesses, which is not the same thing as calling them members. That the 3 million number gets reported out of context "is hardly our fault," Chamber representative Brad Peck told E&E News this week.

At the same time, the Chamber has resisted doing anything more to explain its true size on its website or press releases. Neither source cites the Chamber's true membership number or explains what the group means when it says it "represents" 3 million businesses. Maybe the Chamber thinks the media is lazy or gullible enough to continue exponentially inflating its size. And some in the media may well be, as Marx diligently reveals in a solid piece of reporting.