By now most of you have heard the allegations of truthiness and mismanagement leveled against author and “philanthropist” Greg Mortenson on 60 Minutes last night. It was quite damning to say the least:
I personally have not read the book and barely knew the story. What little I did know until this 60 Minutes exposé has come in the form of word-of-mouth recommendations that start with a gentle hand on my arm at some event and end with breathless “you have to read it.” It always hurts society the most when the seemingly most beneficent emperors are shown to have no clothes.
In this particular case it was probably a helping of liberal guilt mixed with a shot of exoticism that caused so many people to want to believe. But the story is as old as the Bible. Dude comes down from the mountain a changed man and starts to spread the “word.” What is it about mountains that so changes men? If I had read the book I might have been swept away by it to. Who would possibly make up shit like this? This kind of deceit just turns the kindest of hearts cynical. I mean, the part where he claimed that the research director of a respected think tank in Islamabad was part of a Taliban unit that kidnapped him…really? If I was to play armchair psychologist I’d guess that at some point Mortenson felt his lying was for a righteous cause and probably started drinking his own tea. Outside Magazine has the first response by Mortenson. The crux of his defense? “It wasn’t my idea. I am too simple.”
Q: Greg, the 60 Minutes segment claimed that there are major fabrications in Three Cups of Tea. Are there factual errors in the book, and if so, how did they get there?
A: To answer that, it’s important to have some background. I started writing Three Cups of Tea in 2002, doing six chapters myself. I went to New York to four publishers and they all said the same thing: The story’s great but the writing sucks. [Laughs.]
That fall, Kevin Fedarko came over to Pakistan to do a story for Outside about the Siachen Glacier war–we arranged all the logistics to get him to the front lines of the India-Pakistan war zone–and on the way out he came to Korphe with me, where he witnessed a scene in which a woman named Jahan came up, walked into a circle of elders I was sitting with, and said, “I’m ready to go to medical training. You promised me you’d help, so here’s my proposal.”
After that trip, Kevin wrote a Parade magazine article about me in 2003, and the Siachen story and Parade put us on the map. Then Lee Kravitz, who was the editor of Parade, called me and said, I’ve got a book writer for you. This was David Oliver Relin, who co-authored Three Cups of Tea with me and has joint copyright.
That’s where some of the issues are. It’s really complicated, but I’m not a journalist. I don’t take a lot of notes. David and I collaborated. He did nearly all the writing, and along with hundreds of interviews of those involved in the story, I helped him piece together the whole timeline, and from that we started creating the narrative arc and everything. [Link]
So basically there was a lot of interest in this area of the world between 2002 and 2004 (right after the invasion of Afghanistan so we had some guilt that needed working off) and a bunch of writers/editors seem to have created a story using that backdrop and a lot of fiction with a few facts to tie it all together. I actually cited the same Outside Magazine article about the Siachen Glacier war here on SM in 2005 post.
Let’s keep things in perspective though. All is not lost. The cause is important still and will hopefully be picked up by others who do it right and well. Author and adventurer Jon Krakauer said it best last night:
Krakauer: 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. [Link]