The words “federation” and “representing” are key—the Chamber is careful not to claim three million members, and its language is not, strictly speaking, inconsistent (though Harkinson has noted at least one instance in which the Chamber did refer to having “over three million members). But for the “three million” figure to have meaning, that “representation” must have real value—and while the Chamber no doubt believes that it does, it’s not clear that the media should readily accept that claim.
In addition to the examples Harkinson cites, the director of one local chamber in an affluent New Jersey suburb told me that his group pays its $250 annual dues so its members can access a directory of local members in other communities; that he was unaware of the “Free Enterprise” campaign, which the national group has billed as a keystone effort; and that “I don’t see what the U.S. Chamber could do to benefit any local Chamber person.” Even if that’s not typical, it seems clear that there are significant differences between direct member and “federation” members. More problematically, when the Chamber’s boilerplate is lifted into news stories, the caveats and qualifications sometimes get left behind, resulting in a membership figure that the organization doesn’t actually claim.
Whether this was the Chamber’s intent all along has sparked some heated back and forth between the group and its critics. But from a journalistic perspective, that’s beside the point: the issue now is how news organizations, going forward, will report the group’s size.
Early results are mixed. The New Yorker’s James Surowiecki, one of the reporters Harkinson addressed in his open letter, quickly adopted the lower figure (and Harkinson’s views of the Chamber’s motives). Before writing that the Chamber “still has three million members” in a recent column, Surowiecki says, he hadn’t been aware of any dispute or distinction about the group’s size. “Pretty much every source you look at” uses the larger number, he said.
The Associated Press, though, did not indicate that it would change its approach. Via e-mail, a spokesman for the wire service noted that AP stories “typically say the chamber ‘claims’ or ‘calls’ itself…, drawing from its own description on the Chamber’s Web site and its description in news releases.” Another recent AP story adopted the Chamber’s language more faithfully—including the words “federation” and “representing”—but the spokesman said there was “no special meaning” to the difference between the stories. (The email exchange occurred before the Chamber’s Wohlschlegel described the Oct. 14 AP story as inaccurate; a follow-up request for comment had not yet been returned when this story was posted.)
And E&E News, publisher of Greenwire, which recently wrote of “the chamber’s more than 3 million members—a figure that reflects dues-paying executives and local chambers of commerce,” will stick by that language. After “left-leaning bloggers” raised the issue, said reporter Michael Burnham, he asked a Chamber spokesman about it and ultimately settled on new phrasing, which he called “accurate and concise.” E&E editor Dan Berman said the outlet would stay with that approach, but that it might also include an additional line noting the distinction when a story calls for it. (Greenwire has also done its own story on this issue.)
That phrasing may be fairly concise, but it’s not as accurate as it should be. Whatever the value of the representation the national group provides to members of local chambers, there are clear, qualitative differences between direct, dues-paying members and companies that are part of the “federation.” There may be plausible arguments for including both figures, but a story that reports on the group’s size and uses only the larger number is misleading. A story that cites the smaller membership number, on the other hand, is accurate—as the Chamber agrees.