Chamber Challenges MoJo to Fact Off And...

| Sat Oct. 17, 2009 3:14 PM EDT

Today the US Chamber of Commerce fought back against its critics, taking issue with my assertion that it routinely inflates its membership numbers. "Yes, there are two numbers, direct membership and our federation members--there have always been," wrote Chamber representative Brad Peck on the Chamber's blog. "Both are represented at the Chamber, and we represent both on Capitol Hill."

Peck is correct that the Chamber has cited both numbers (including at a press conference on October 7th). I acknowledged as much on October 14th, when I noted every instance that the 300,000 number appeared in the news database Lexis-Nexis. But what he doesn't say is how infrequent that's been. Total number of uses: three (plus at least one use by the Wall Street Journal, which does not appear in Lexis-Nexis). Contrast that with the number of times the "3 million" figure has appeared: somewhere north of 200. As I've argued, this suggests that the Chamber has been extremely reluctant to cite its real membership number since it began using the "3 million" figure in 1997. Nothing Peck writes refutes that claim.

Indeed, my assertion is borne out by the Chamber's own website and press releases. With no qualifiers, they repeatedly use variations of the same line:  The US Chamber represents "3 million businesses of all sizes, sectors, and regions." Meanwhile, the 300,000 figure appears nowhere on the US Chamber's website, uschamber.com. The only time it ever shows up on the seperate URL of the Chamber's blog is today (in response to Mother Jones), and in quoting the above-mentioned Wall Street Journal story. And the Chamber is guilty of more than a sin of omission. Consider the following quote to the New York Times last month from Chamber spokesman Eric Wholschlegel: "We have over 3 million members, and we don't comment on the comings and goings of our membership." 

Furthermore, Peck cites no evidence to support his claim that the Chamber represents both membership figures on Capitol Hill. Indeed, the 300,000 number does not appear in any of the transcripts of the Chamber's Congressional testimony on Lexis-Nexis, but the "3 million" figure often does.

The real purpose of Peck's blog post appears aimed at minimizing  the significance of my reporting by arguing that the ensuing story was not a true "expose" or "result of months of sleuthing." But I've been the first to note that the 300,000 figure was out there for anyone to see. Peck ignores my main point, a point nobody else was making: The Chamber's true membership number had been obscured for more than a decade by its claim to "represent 3 million members" that, in reality, don't qualify for US Chamber membership benefitsdon't pay it dues, don't get to vote to elect its board or leadership, and don't have any effective say in setting its policies. I've also shown that those "members" often don't know that the Chamber is counting them, nor want it to.

In addition to discounting my reporting, Peck characterizes Mother Jones as an untrustworthy news source that shouldn't be relied upon by the mainstream media. How then does he explain the fact that Mother Jones won the National Magazine Award for General Excellence last year? Not mainstream enough? (Maybe he just objected to Mother Jones' editors saying that the Chamber is hostile to investigative journalism.)

Finally, I'd like to conclude with six questions for Peck (not that I expect to get a response, given that I never have from the Chamber until today):

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  1. Will you change your website and press releases  to clear up the difference between your so-called "direct members" and "federation members"? 
  2. Will you allow all of your 3 million "members" to vote to elect your board and/or leadership and/or set your policies?
  3. The US Chamber's federation partnership program allows local chambers to give free, automatic US Chamber memberships to their small business members. But only 354 local chambers (make that 353, since San Francisco dropped out of the program last week) actually participate in the program out of thousands of local chambers nationwide. Even with this program, you only have 300,000 "direct members." So isn't this a clear rejection on the part of most local chambers of the idea that their millions of members should be counted as your members? 
  4. Do the US Chamber's "federation members" qualify for all of the "member benefits" listed on your membership page? If not, why call them "members"?
  5. Some local chambers (San Francisco, for example) provide a public database of their members. Why don't you?
  6. Your website says that more than 96 percent of your members are small businesses. Are those dues-paying members or "federation members"? And why does that percentage matter when your board of directors, which controls your organization, is overwhelmingly made up of large companies?

Peck addressed the membership issue in the context of a broader attack on Washington Post columnist Steven Pearstein, who'd cited my reporting in a column about "three embarrassing truths about the Chamber." Peck's response to Pearlstein is deeply inadequate. Mojo's Kate Sheppard debunks's the Chamber's purported support for action on climate change here.

UPDATE: Peck responds again here (and his post is cached here; the site seems to be down now), but declines to answer my questions because they are "predicated on a notion that we claim 3 million members dishonestly." My response is that many if not most questions are predicated on some sort of notion.  He also argues that Mother Jones, on its website, claims to reach 2 million people, while the print magazine has 230,000 subscribers. But Mother Jones has never claimed 2 million "subscribers." The Chamber repeatedly claims 3 million "members." If the Chamber wanted to call them something else, like "underlying members" (the term used early in the reign of Chamber president Tom Donohue), then fine. But they are not members.

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