60 Minutes continues to give hope to those who believe journalism is not dead.
Sunday night the news show aired a compelling take down of author Greg Mortenson that was the talk of Twitter.
Think Bill O’Reilly ambush, but smart and important. [Video below.]
The investigative report by Steve Kroft took a devastating look at Mortenson’s New York Times bestseller Three Cups of Tea.
The memoir, which topped the bestseller list for three years and is required reading for American servicemen deployed in Afghanistan, follows Mortenson as he finds the village of Korphe after a failed attempt to summit K2 and and vows to build a school for the children there. Now those claims are being called into question.
Kroft’s report finds people, including bestselling author Jon Krakauer, who claim Mortenson’s story is false or wildly exaggerated. (Krakauer’s soundbite: “It’s a beautiful story, and it’s a lie.”)
They say details of the memoir — such as how Mortenson first found the Korphe village where he was inspired to found a school — are fabricated. 60 Minutes located two of the author’s companions on the trip, and they confirmed Krakauer’s claims.
Additionally, they spoke with Mansur Khan Mahsud, the research director of an Islamabad think tank. He said Mortenson’s claims about being abducted by the Taliban for eight days are false. Mahsud would know; he was one of the “captors” pictured in a photograph.
“[Mahsud] told us he and the other people in the photograph were Mortenson’s protectors in — not his abductors,” Croft said during the piece.
The inaccuracies shed more negative light on the issue of truth in memoir and bring to mind James Frey who also suffered a public outing after the facts of his memoir A Million Little Pieces were questioned.
But the bigger story here is that of the children Mortenson is trying to help. Many people claim that the Central Asia Institute — the charity Mortensen founded to build schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan — spends too much money funding “book tours” and not enough in the region.
During the segment, Kroft speaks with Daniel Borochoff, the president of the American Institute of Philanthropy. After examining the one financial statement released by the CAI, Borochoff concludes the charity is not getting adequate return on its investment in the founder, which included $1.5 million in advertising to promote the books and $1.3 million in travel expenses.
Borochoff: What’s surprising is that most of the program spending is not to help kids in Pakistan and Afghanistan, it’s actually… what they call domestic outreach where he goes around the country speaking and the cost incurred for that, things like travel is a major component of that. You know, just advertising.
Kroft: What does that mean?
Borochoff: Sounds like a book tour to me.
In response the claims, the CAI board of directors told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle that they felt they received fair value from the founder.
“Greg’s speeches, books and public appearances are the primary means of educating the American people on behalf of the institute and he is CAI’s principal fundraiser,” the statement said. “He devotes his time and his life to this important work. CAI’s activities and Greg’s are closely intertwined. … (And) CAI appropriately receives a greater benefit from Greg’s activities than Greg does himself.”
Mortenson, who refused to be interviewed for the story and is having heart surgery on Thursday to repair a small hole, released a long statement and the CAI board of directors also answered 60 Minutes‘ written questions as well. Most of the answers sound something like this:
“As explained above, the travel expenses referenced above are CAI’s expenses because these activities are integral to our mission and operations. Because CAI appropriately bore these expenses, there is no need to offset them. However, on his own initiative, Greg has personally donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the organisation, and worked for the organisation without compensation for a number of years.”
Krakauer, perhaps, sums it all up best:
“He’s not Bernie Madoff. I mean, let’s be clear. He has done a lot of good. He has helped thousands of school kids in Pakistan and Afghanistan… He has become perhaps the world’s most effective spokesperson for girls’ education in developing countries. And he deserves credit for that… Nevertheless, he is now threatening to bring it all down, to destroy all of it by this fraud and by these lies.”
Meanwhile, this story may have another far-reaching effect; President Obama himself donated $100,000 of his Nobel Peace Prize money to Mortenson’s charity.