60 Minutes and bestselling author Jon Krakauer have raised questions about the writing and charity work of Three Cups Of Tea author Greg Mortenson, whose focus has been on educating girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Will the millions of people who bought Mortenson's book and supported his charity, the Central Asia institute, care?
Specifically, the charges are that Mortenson fabricated elements of his memoir, including saying he visited a village after a failed mountain climb when he actually visited a year later. (He now says he visited several times). The men pictured as his kidnappers deny being Taliban or being kidnappers. (You'll have to take their own word for it on that.)
More seriously for a charity to which President Obama donated $100,000 from his Nobel winnings, the American Institute of Philanthropy questions the organization having only produced a single audit statement in fourteen years, and the fact that "the non-profit spends more money domestically, promoting the importance of building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan than it does actually constructing and funding them overseas." That promotion looks a lot like Mortenson's book tour, despite the fact that "according to the financial statement, the charity receives no income from the bestsellers and little if any income from Mortenson's paid speaking engagements, while listing $1.7 million in "book-related expenses." The show also visited "nearly 30" of the 141 schools the institute says it built.
Some were performing well, but roughly half were empty, built by somebody else, or not receiving support at all. Some were being used to store spinach, or hay for livestock; others had not received any money from Mortenson's charity in years.
Mortenson did himself no favors by evading 60 Minutes' requests for comment, and then bolting when the show ambushed him at a book signing. He's since issued statements which include the following post-modern analysis:
Although we would like the world to be linear, orderly, and peaceful, the reality is that our world is a dynamic, fluid place, often filled with chaos and confusion. In that space, I thrive and get the courage to help bring change and empower people.
As it happens, he's getting surgery this week for a hole in his heart. The Central Asia Institute's website isn't working for us, but there are apparently specific statements and responses here, here and here.
New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, who's visited Mortenson's schools and plugged his work in his column, posted on his Facebook page, saying, "I find this whole issue heart-breaking." The responses provided several glimpses into what people expect from memoirs, their devotion to being inspired by Mortenson, and their skepticism about the press. Although there was plenty of disappointment, there was plenty of shrugging it off or outright frustration. A cross-section, in ascending order of cynicism:
Why can't a reporter spend time giving a bank this kind of run down? Or a politician? Or any other entity that spends its time bilking people out of many more millions than Central Asia Institute ever could?
Yes these are serious allegations, but can't we get some serious allegations for something that actually affects people daily? (liked by 44 people)
So let me get this right, the guy builds schools for girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That part is true, yes? What's the big freaking deal if the book isn't 100% exactly as it happened? The outcome has been good, education is being provided to girls in a part of the world where girls generally don't get educated. Isn't that what's important? Life rarely happens the way we recall it, what matters is what you do in the now. And he seems to be doing pretty good stuff for people who don't get a lot of good.
Let's get a hold of our emotions here. So what if he did lie? Sometimes the end justifies the means and if a little embellishment allowed him to reach an end state that helped educate young girls and make their lives better, why are we all getting our panties in a wad? If he did lie, I give him credit for being so competent at strategic communications and PR.
Who said the American public wasn't sophisticated?
Meanwhile, Mortenson's publisher, Viking Press (part of the Penguin Group), has issued a statement:
Greg Mortenson's work as a humanitarian in Afghanistan and Pakistan has provided tens of thousands of children with an education. 60 Minutes is a serious news organization and in the wake of their report, Viking plans to carefully review the materials with the author.
Questions Over Greg Mortenson's Stories [CBS News]
'Three Cups Of Tea' Update: Publisher Releases Comment [Shelf Life]
Nicholas Kristof [Facebook]