Chamber Says Misleading Membership Claims "Hardly Our Fault." Really?

| Thu Oct. 22, 2009 2:03 PM EDT

In a story today in E&E News, a respected environmental news service that is often reprinted in the New York Times, the US Chamber of Commerce remained on the defensive about its claim to represent "3 million" members. E&E reported (sub req'd) the Chamber's recent assertion that it has always used two membership numbers: its 300,000 direct members and its 3 million "federation members" (a number that includes members of local chambers who have no direct ties to the national group). "This often does get reported in the press as 3 million members without qualification," Chamber blogger Brad Peck told E&E. "That is hardly our fault."

But Peck's statement appears to be contradicted by a recent quote from the Chamber's spokesman. "We have over 3 million members, and we don't comment on the comings and goings of our membership," spokesman Eric Wholschlegel told the New York Times last month in a story about the utility PG&E's departure from the Chamber over its climate policy. The Chamber also does not cite the smaller membership number on its website or many (if not all) of its press releases. And its written materials typically do not explain the meaning of the "3 million" number, failing to use the term "federation members," let alone clarify what it means.

In the E&E piece, the Chamber also lashed out at my reporting of the issue, saying that it "has crossed into advocacy and should be treated as such." E&E published its piece a day after I sent an open letter to one of its reporters questioning his continued citation of the Chamber's "3 million members." If advocacy is the same thing as requesting that other media outlets report the facts,  then I am guilty as charged. Or maybe Peck considers the choice of which number to use an ideological issue. If that's the case, then E&E and the Associated Press are to the right of the Wall Street Journal, which reports the Chamber's membership as 300,000.

UPDATE: Today, James Surowiecki of the New Yorker strongly sided with my assertion that the correct membership number is around 300,000.

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