Bogus "Fox Fact": U.S. Chamber of Commerce, under attack from Obama, represents "3 million businesses"


In recent days, while discussing the Obama administration's "attacks on biz," Fox News has repeatedly touted the bogus "fact" that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce "represents 3 million businesses." However, as Mother Jones has reported, "most of the businesses aren't direct members of the US Chamber, nor do local chambers have any effective oversight of the national group"; further, the chamber's own spokesman admitted the group's "direct members" are closer to 360,000.

Fox News repeatedly touts "fact" that U.S. Chamber of Commerce represents 3 million businesses

From the October 26 edition of Fox News' Your World with Neil Cavuto:

Cavuto on-screen graphic

Wallace: White House attacking chamber, "which represents 3 million businesses." During the October 25 edition of Fox News' America's News HQ, Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace said that the White House is attacking the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, "which represents 3 million businesses."

Beck: Obama is attacking chamber, which "represents 3 million businesses." During the October 23 edition of his Fox News program, Glenn Beck claimed that "Obama and his cronies don't like the free-market system" and stated that the Obama administration is attacking the Chamber of Commerce, which Beck repeatedly said "represents 3 million businesses."

Chamber "does not represent anything close to the 3 million businesses it has always claimed"

CJR: Businesses chamber claims to " 'represent' ... are not direct members of the national group," report using 3 million figure "is misleading." From an October 23 Columbia Journalism Review article:

The question has been pushed by Mother Jones staff reporter Josh Harkinson, who reported last week that while news accounts typically refer to the Chamber's three million members, the organization's roster of direct, dues-paying member businesses is about one-tenth that size. The larger number is derived from counting businesses that belong to state and local chambers, many of which belong to the national organization. But while the U.S. Chamber does claim to "represent" businesses that belong to the smaller chambers, those companies are not direct members of the national group.

The distinction matters, Harkinson argues, because the larger figure makes it appear that support for the Chamber's positions -- many of which Mother Jones opposes -- is more broad-based than it really is. "The Chamber claims to speak for the U.S. business community," he says, and the widespread use of the three million figure "certainly adds to" the impression that it does. But if many of those three million aren't sustaining the Chamber financially or playing a role in setting its policies, how meaningful is the number? On Wednesday, Harkinson published an open letter to several reporters who had recently used the "three million" figure (sometimes with caveats or qualifiers), asking them to publish a correction.

On the issue of the size of the Chamber's membership, there's not actually much dispute. On Friday, [chamber spokesman Eric] Wohlschlegel said the organization has about 360,000 direct members (a number, he emphasized, that has been growing since executive director Tom Donohue took over); in addition, it counts about 1,200 state and local chambers and about 900 trade associations as members. And the Chamber does cite this figure publicly.


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.

Harkinson added on October 26 that the "Chamber often purports to 'represent 3 million businesses' based on the fact that they're enrolled in local chambers of commerce. But most of the businesses aren't direct members of the US Chamber, nor do local chambers have any effective oversight of the national group." Harkinson also wrote of the chamber's claims that it "represents" 3 million businesses:

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.

Wash. Post's Pearlstein: Chamber "does not represent anything close to the 3 million businesses it has always claimed." In an October 16 Washington Post column, business columnist Steven Pearlstein wrote that the "first truth is that the Chamber, in fact, does not represent anything close to the 3 million businesses it has always claimed. In response to an inquiry from Mother Jones, the chamber acknowledged that its actual paid membership is only 300,000, including several thousand local chambers of commerce whose own membership was used in calculating the inflated 3 million figure. Moreover, when Josh Harkinson of Mother Jones contacted some of those local chambers, their leaders took pains to distance themselves from the national organization, whose policies, they said, they had no hand in shaping and with which they frequently disagree. 'They don't represent me,' said Mark Jaffe, chief executive of the Greater New York Chamber."

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