Nov 2 2000

AP’s Inadequate Investigation

Bolivia reporter's conflicts glossed over

In an October 26 Action Alert, FAIR reported that the Associated Press‘ Bolivia correspondent, Peter McFarren, was resigning amid revelations of clear conflicts of interest.

McFarren had long had a significant involvement in Bolivian politics– a situation that went unnoticed even after an expose by Narco News Bulletin, until FAIR called the wire service to request comment on McFarren’s status. In our alert, FAIR urged readers to ask AP for a full investigation of these conflicts and how they may have impacted McFarren’s reporting.

The same day that the FAIR alert went out, AP released a story on McFarren’s resignation. However, the report glossed over key aspects of the case. (The full text appears at the end of this message.)

AP acknowledged that McFarren had publicly promoted a private water project that would financially benefit the reporter’s foundation. But, AP wrote, McFarren has “never written about the water project for AP.”

While technically true, the claim is more an indictment of McFarren and the wire service than a defense. Since last April, when the intense struggle over water rights became one of Bolivia’s biggest news stories, McFarren has filed several reports about water policy, including three such stories in the last six weeks. The privatization of water– one of the key issues at the root of large-scale protests– was a necessary precondition for the project McFarren was promoting. To report on the water protests without disclosing his personal stake in the issue is a gross violation of journalistic standards.

AP reports McFarren’s claim that a speech he gave on the water project was delivered not to the Bolivian legislature, but to “an organization of community leaders” who happened to be “in a Bolivian congressional building.” AP does not, however, note McFarren’s admission to Narco News that he works “pro bono” as a “promoter of the water export law,” nor does it note that McFarren’s presentation explicitly called for passage of “a specific law.” These details are relevant to any assessment of whether or not McFarren was in fact lobbying the legislature, and should have been included in the AP‘s story.

In addition, the AP story says nothing about how McFarren’s supervisors could have been, as they claim, unaware of his activities. Narco News reports that McFarren is “a near mythical player in the highest levels of Bolivian society,” often covered in the La Paz press’ society pages “as he rubs elbows socially with… the foreign diplomatic corps, the commander of the Bolivian armed forces and other officials.”

AP failed to report on additional McFarren projects that may have compromised his, and thus AP‘s, reporting. A simple search of the Nexis news database and a look at McFarren’s Quipus Foundation website reveal that McFarren has for years been involved in projects dependent on numerous government agencies and corporations. A favorable 1997 profile in the publication Americas (11/21/97) stated McFarren “is perched on the pinnacle of a cultural-publishing-media-philanthropic conglomerate, perhaps the only one of its kind in the world.” According to the profile, McFarren is also “a founder and board member of the Bolivian Export Foundation.”

Quipus, another foundation that McFarren created and presides over, boasts $6 million in support from the city government of La Paz, Bolivia’s capital, and also receives funds from the country’s national government. Other contributors acknowledged on the foundation’s website include the Netherlands, Spain, Canada, Germany, Mexico, the World Bank, USAID, USIA, IBM-Bolivia and American Airlines.

A reporter whose projects are so dependent on the good will and largesse of so many powerful governments, agencies and corporations necessarily undermines his independence and impartiality.

All of this information was easily available to AP when it published its brief, inadequate report on McFarren on October 26. The public deserves to know the truth– that AP‘s Bolivia correspondent was, for all practical purposes, a conflict of interest disguised as a journalist. And the public deserves total disclosure, including a report on how McFarren’s financial and political involvements may have compromised AP reporting from Bolivia.

AP‘s Code of Ethics advises subscribing media outlets to “report matters regarding itself or its personnel with the same vigor and candor as it would other institutions or individuals.” One would hope AP does not claim that its piece on McFarren meets that standard.

ACTION: Urge the Associated Press to conduct and publish a more rigorous investigation into McFarren’s conflicts of interest, and explain how they were overlooked by the wire service.

CONTACT: You can reach the AP at the following addresses:

(Jerry Ceppos is an officer of the Associated Press Managing Editors group.)

As always, please remember that your comments are taken more seriously if you maintain a polite tone. Please cc with your correspondence.