Tuesday, April 19, 2011

60 Minutes Serves Up Three Cups of Controversy


Considering the subject matter of this blog, I'm sure that most of you are familiar with Greg Mortenson and his wildly popular book Three Cups of Tea. For those of you who don't know his story, Mortenson was climbing in the Karakoram a number of years back, and after getting lost there, he wandered into a remote village, where the people treated him kindly, offered aid, and got him back on his feet. He was so touched by their generosity, that he vowed to return the favor by building them a school. He would later launch the Central Asia Institute to help fund that project, and dozens of similar ones throughout Pakistan, Afghanistan, and beyond.

Mortenson rose to international fame thanks to his book, which has been a source of inspiration to many who have read it. In that book he shares a number of miraculous and amazing stories about his experiences in the Himalaya and the people he met there. Three Cups of Tea would go on to be a bestseller and generate plenty of attention and funds for Mortenson's charitable works.

It turns out however, that he may not be exactly telling us the whole truth. Over the weekend, the long-running CBS television series 60 Minutes ran an expose on Mortenson with fellow author Jon Krakauer, who wrote Into Thin Air, offering up some thoughts. You can watch the whole segment on YouTube by clicking here, embedding has been disabled unfortunately. In a nutshell, Krakauer, and others, say that Mortenson has embellished some of the details of his story to make them sound more dramatic and impressive. That some of the things he claims happened to him in his books are, at best, stretches of the truth, and at worst, outright fabrications. There are even some indications that the funds that are raised by CAI are not being spent properly and that the organization lacks transparency in how it operates. There are even some questions as to the number of schools that have been built. We do know that Mortenson and his team have indeed built schools in Central Asia, but it seems the number could be exaggerated.

These revelations have caused some disillusionment throughout the adventure community, with many people wondering what the real story is. In the interview, even Krakauer acknowledges that Mortenson has done great things in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but wonders if he puts it all in jeopardy with his exaggerations of the truth and potentially shady handling of funding. It also doesn't help that Mortenson refused to be interviewed for the segment, and at one point is caught on camera looking like a deer in the headlights.

Yesterday, ExWeb weighed in on the topic, posting this story that comes out in defense of Mortenson and takes a few shots at Krakauer in the process. UpaDowna also posted some thoughts on the story, which you can read by clicking here.

So? What are your thoughts on this brewing controversy? Do you buy Mortenson's tale? Krakauer says "It's a beautiful story. And it's a lie." Others in the interview seem to take the same stance, seeming to indicate that Mortenson has, at the very least, taken some liberties with the truth. Does that change the way you feel about him in any way? After all, he has still done a lot of good in those poor Central Asian nations.

For me personally, I still respect Mortenson for the great work that he continues to do in Pakistan and beyond. But I have to question is motivations for stretching the truth the way he has, not to mention the way he seems to be earning quite a bit of money off of the Central Asian Institute. A non-profit, charitable organization should be more up front and forth-coming with how they use the funds that we donate to them, and at the moment, that doesn't seem to be the case. Still, in the end, the organization doe a lot of good, and I hope that doesn't get lost amidst the tall tales.

Update: Mortenson has granted an interview to Outside Online in which he addresses the issues presented by 60 Minutes. Read that interview here.

9 comments:

Clyde said...

These rumors have been circulating for a longtime in the climbing world. Sadly, they appear to be true. Be sure to read "Three Cups of Deceit" to get Krakauer's full story. The Outside interview does a poor job of rebuttal. It never made sense how GM could end up in Korphe instead of Askole since that's on the other side of a major river with no bridges upstream. Nazir Sabir, easily the most respected climber in Pakistan, flat out calls GM a liar. I'll take his word over ExWeb any day.

Adventure Junkie said...

Agreed on all accounts Clyde. The Outside Interview smacks a bit of someone just trying to get a response out of GM, any response, rather than good answers.

And ExWeb seems to have an axe to grind with Krakauer as well.

Anonymous said...

I've read Krakauer's report. It's so damning on so many fronts. There is no question that Mortenson has done alot of good, but why throw it all away with the unnecessary wholesale fabrication of events, the malignment of his kind hosts as Taliban kidnappers, and questionable financial practices. I'm so disgusted by his deceit and mismanagement of donors money. What a creep.

Sean said...

If this is indeed true, it will be greatly dissapointing for those who've taken inspiration from him in BYUs international studies department.

Buzz said...

Jon's research is impeccable; it simply cannot be doubted. He wrote:

* Greg did a lot of good
* Greg lied flagrantly
* Greg used non-profit funds for his personal use
* Not as much got done in Asia as claimed.

Nobody should ever question Krakauers integrity and journalistic integrity. Don't even go there.

Shanda said...

Give me a break about Krakauer's integrity! He seems to take delight at trashing Mortenson like he did Anatoli Boukreev, and I've lost all respect for him. If anyone should be scrutinized, it should be Krakauer. Funny how he had his article published about 60 seconds after "60 Minutes".

Laurel said...

Mortenson has done such great work and it's commendable, but I do find it odd that he isn't more transparent. Why lie about it? Whether you've built 1 school or 100 schools, he's already done more than most people have to make a difference in other people's lives.

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Ray Anderson said...

This entire thing bothers me. I can only think of what my deceased father used to say, "It pays to be honest." Despite his good work, he shouldn't have exaggerated.