Ever heard of Greg Mortenson or his nonprofit, the Central Asia Institute (CAI)?
A climber, Mortenson wrote a book titled Three Cups of Tea chronicling his 1993 experience climbing K2, the world's second-tallest mountain, in 2006. In the book, he describes getting separated from his expedition during the descent and climbing down the mountain solo, eventually stumbling into the Pakistani village of Korphe. There, he says, the villagers befriended him, fed him and nursed him back to health.
After regaining his wits, he noticed the village's children learning school lessons by drawing with sticks in the sand, and that stark face of poverty inspired him to devote himself to building schools, especially for girls, all over Pakistan and Afghanistan. Three Cups of Tea became a bestseller, and Mortenson now travels across the country giving speeches about his work and the nonprofit, CAI, he formed to support it. The CAI claims to have built hundreds of schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
According to a 60 Minutes report, some, if not all, of what he described in his book was fake.
"It's a beautiful story, and it's a lie," bestselling author and Boulder resident Jon Krakauer told 60 Minutes' Steve Kroft.
Krakauer, the author of Into Thin Air and most recently Where Men Win Glory, said he initially supported Mortenson, donating $75,000 to the CAI. But he "withdrew his support" — in Kroft's words — after discovering that some of Mortenson's most dramatic tales were fabrications.
Krakauer has not made these accusations lightly, it seems. He has
written a 90-page e-book about Mortenson, available free of charge (for
now, at least) at byliner.com.
(I sent an email to the site asking for details on when they would start charging for the e-book and how much it would cost. I'll update when I hear back from them. UPDATE: You can still download the e-book for free from the website, though originally the "free" part was supposed to end yesterday. No word yet on how much longer it will be free. The book is no longer available for free. The e-book is now available for Kindle for $2.99) All author proceeds from the e-book, called "Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way," will go to the Himalayan Stop Girl Trafficking Project.
The 60 Minutes investigation reveals that some of the most suspenseful parts of Mortenson's tale might not be quite as real as they seem. He claims to have been captured by Taliban fighters and produced a picture with his alleged captors lording over him with an AK-47. 60 Minutes tracked down some of the men in the picture, and not only did they swear not to be Taliban, they produced another picture showing Mortenson holding the gun.
The report reveals some other seemingly damning facts, such as the fact that CAI has only released one audited financial statement in 14 years of existence. (Note that the CAI has now posted its financial statements on their website http://www.ikat.org/about-cai/financials.) Check out the following excerpt from the interview:
Krakauer: In 2002, his board treasurer quit, resigned, along with the board president and two other board members and said, "You should stop giving money to Greg."
Kroft: Did he say why?
Krakauer: He said, in so many words, that Greg uses Central Asia Institute as his private ATM machine. That there's no accounting. He has no receipts.
Watch the entire video for more, including 60 Minutes ambushing Mortenson at a book signing.
This is an interesting litmus test of the public's tolerance for bullshit from public figures. When James Frey's memoir A Million Little Pieces was revealed to be mostly lies, the backlash was harsh, and Oprah all but forced him to publicly apologize on her show. But the amount of support rolling in for Mortenson is astounding.
"Don Hewitt must be rolling over in his grave. When he was at the helm, a story like this would have never made it to the air. Whatever Greg Motenson (sic) may have embelished (sic) to make his story interesting does not for one second undermine all that he has [done] for promoting education and reform in war ravaged areas. 60 minutes (sic) has lost my trust in serious reporting. I am removing it from my DVR list. So long CBS," wrote one commenter on the story.
"I believe Mortenson. No organization or person is perfect. I have no doubt that certain portions of the account of his meeting in Korph (sic) were stylistically or chronologically altered to tell an overall factual account of a man's mission to do good work. I would encourage Mortenson to be above-board in his responses to these matters...to speak plainly about any embellishments and to be clear and open about all expenditures for CAI. I believe in the work of CAI...I believe we would be better off if more was done to increase this work. To CAI and Mortenson: those of us who believe in your work expect a standard of disclosure and integrity within your actions that those who attack you do not even expect from themselves. I hope this incident does not deter from your work," wrote another.
Mortenson's hometown paper, the Bozeman [Mont.] Daily Chronicle, reported that the Montana attorney general has opened an investigation into the Montana-based CAI.
While some of the comments on the CBS story, as well as the follow-up stories written by the Chronicle, are critical of Mortenson, the vast majority are critical of CBS, Krakauer and the idea that Mortenson has done anything wrong. Many, including Krakauer and New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, applaud Mortenson for having the balls to go deep into Afghanistan and Pakistan and actually build schools, and no one is denying that he has done much good in the region. So how much of a sin is it for someone to lie to the public in order to achieve good in the world? Is Mortenson guilty of skimming cash from his nonprofit, or is he guilty merely of being unorganized and unqualified to run a nonprofit that took in almost $14 million in 2009? How much should we care, given all the good he has done in one of the toughest and most inhospitable regions of the world?
Kristof, who considers Mortenson a friend, seems to have already know the answer.
"As we sift the truth of these allegations, let’s not allow this uproar to obscure that larger message of the possibility of change," Kristof wrote in his NYT column. "Greg’s books may or may not have been fictionalized, but there’s nothing imaginary about the way some of his American donors and Afghan villagers were able to put aside their differences and prejudices and cooperate to build schools — and a better world."
The attacks on 60 Minutes and Krakauer are troubling, and should be troubling for anyone who still believes in the goodness of investigative journalism. Mortenson seems to be a great guy, but if these allegations turn out to be true and Mortenson is revealed to be a doing-good con man, he must face the legal and social consequences. George Orwell wrote, "To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle," and our society's eager willingness to look away when an unpleasant fact is staring them in the face should worry all those who still believe in the power of the truth.