Nov 2 2000

AP’s Inadequate Bolivia Investigation

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

McFarren had long had a significant involvement in Bolivian politics– asituation 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 theseconflicts and how they may have impacted McFarren’s reporting.

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

AP acknowledged that McFarren had publicly promoted a private water projectthat 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 thewire service than a defense. Since last April, when the intense struggleover water rights became one of Bolivia’s biggest news stories, McFarren hasfiled several reports about water policy, including three such stories inthe last six weeks. The privatization of water– one of the key issues atthe root of large-scale protests– was a necessary precondition for theproject McFarren was promoting. To report on the water protests withoutdisclosing his personal stake in the issue is a gross violation ofjournalistic standards.

AP reports McFarren’s claim that a speech he gave on the water projectwas delivered not to the Bolivian legislature, but to “an organization ofcommunity leaders” who happened to be “in a Bolivian congressionalbuilding.” AP does not, however, note McFarren’s admission to Narco Newsthat he works “pro bono” as a “promoter of the water export law,” nor doesit note that McFarren’s presentation explicitly called for passage of “aspecific law.” These details are relevant to any assessment of whether ornot McFarren was in fact lobbying the legislature, and should have beenincluded in the AP’s story.

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

AP failed to report on additional McFarren projects that may have compromisedhis, and thus AP’s, reporting. A simple search of the Nexis news databaseand a look at McFarren’s Quipus Foundation website reveal that McFarren hasfor years been involved in projects dependent on numerous governmentagencies and corporations. A favorable 1997 profile in the publicationAmericas (11/21/97) stated McFarren “is perched on the pinnacle of acultural-publishing-media-philanthropic conglomerate, perhaps the only oneof its kind in the world.” According to the profile, McFarren is also “afounder 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. Othercontributors acknowledged on the foundation’s website include theNetherlands, 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 ofso many powerful governments, agencies and corporations necessarilyundermines his independence and impartiality.

All of this information was easily available to AP when it published itsbrief, inadequate report on McFarren on October 26. The public deserves toknow the truth– that AP’s Bolivia correspondent was, for all practicalpurposes, a conflict of interest disguised as a journalist. And the publicdeserves total disclosure, including a report on how McFarren’s financialand political involvements may have compromised AP reporting from Bolivia.

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

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

CONTACT: You can reach the AP at the following (Jerry Ceppos is an officer of the Associated Press Managing Editors group.)