Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, keeps digging himself into a deeper and deeper hole.
Both 60 Minutes and Jon Krakauer produced stories detailing tales of false narratives in his memoirs and financial impropriety at the Central Asia Institute (CAI), the non-profit organisation he started to help build schools in Afghanista and Pakistan.
The works claim Mortenson made up key details surrounding the story that lead him to start the project and, in the words of a former CAI treasurer, “Greg regards CAI as his personal ATM.”
Neither the CBS show nor Krakauer — a former supporter of the charity whose rage is barely contained in his excellent sourced, impressive 25,000-word work, Three Cups of Deceit — spoke with Mortenson for their stories. (Mortenson turned down an interview request 60 Minutes made in September 2010, then claimed he did not hear from the newsmagazine until March 30, 2011. Krakauer contacted Mortenson on April 13, 2011. The subject initially agreed to an interview but reneged citing poor health.)
However, Outside executive editor Alex Heard — who edited the magazine’s story about Mortenson that ran in 2008 — interviewed the author by phone for five total hours on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The duo spoke before the pieces came out, but Heard had a pretty good idea of what accusations would be leveled from his own reporting on the matter.
Heard’s questions probe deeper into the allegations during the conversation, Mortenson frequently and subtlety alters his story. For example, about midway through the second discussion, the Three Cups author admitted he was only in Korphe for a few hours during his initial visit instead of multiple days as he writes in his book. (Both 60 Minutes and Krakauer say he was never there in 1993, only in 1994.)
The overall effect is that the interview reads as though the nurse-turned-philanthropist is hiding something, an assessment the Outside editor agreed with when he spoke with the Wire.
“I felt like I was talking with someone who was trying to figure out what his defence was without going back any farther than he had to,” Heard said when interviewed by phone on Tuesday morning. “The Korphe thing, initially he didn’t tell me that his second visit happened a year later. That kind of evolved, and I have to wonder if that’s going to keep evolving and ultimately we’re going to find out that Krakauer is right and he never was there at all that first time. I don’t know.”
“His current story is holding on to the idea that he did go there briefly during that descent from K2 but I just don’t know if he did. That’s what he said he did. I definitely didn’t feel that he gave me the straight answer the first time every time.”
Heard pointed out that Mortenson “did not sound very strong or healthy,” giving credence to Mortenson’s claims of health problems.
Even so, the editor knows the author fabricated some of the most compelling parts of his famous memoir. In Heard’s mind, that is a major issue.
“I think it’s going to turn a lot of people off. Go back and read that story as it’s presented in the book with all the novelist details. … [There is] so much moving detail piled on to that episode, and he’s told it so many times,” he said. “That’s like the foundation myth, and if he’s lying about that, they are really going to wonder if he’s lying about everything else.”
60 Minutes and Krakauer also pointed out financial issues, with Mortenson using CAI to pay millions of dollars of expenses and purchasing thousands of copies of his book (at retail price, which meant the author would receive royalties). It is clear to the Outside editor that the organisation needs to be cleaned up and rid of its leader, but there is still a possibility for it to do good.
“My guess would be that if things aren’t too serious, if a crime hasn’t been committed as opposed to bad management of a non-profit, I think he can come out on the other side of this and not be in charge of anymore, but still be the figurehead,” Heard said.
In many ways, that might be the best option. Even Mortenson’s critics are quick to point out the good he has done in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Not all the tales are lies; CAI did build schools, and Mortenson is one of the foremost spokespeople for the education of girls in the area. He has done wonderful things.
We will allow Krakauer the last word: “In all fairness, Greg Mortenson has done much that is admirable since he began working in Baltistan sixteen and a half years ago. He’s been a tireless advocate for girls’ education. He’s established dozens of schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan that have benefited tens of thousands children, a significant percentage of them girls. A huge number of people regard him as a hero, and he inspires tremendous trust. It is now evident, however, that Mortenson recklessly betrayed this trust, damaging his credibility beyond repair.”