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 benefits, don'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):