TELLURIDE – The Mountainfilm community was rocked this week with news of an exposé on “60 Minutes” that questioned the credibility and financial ethics of Greg Mortenson, author of the bestseller Three Cups of Tea.
Mortenson and his charity, the Central Asia Institute, have channeled the huge success of that book, and a sequel, Stones Into Schools, into a much-admired effort to build schools, particularly schools for girls, in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Three Cups of Tea, with its fighting-terrorism-through-education theme, so impressed Gen. David Patreus, he recommended it be required reading for all U.S. troops headed to Afghanistan.
But the “60 Minutes” piece, which aired Sunday, claimed that Mortenson made up or exaggerated several of the iconic personal stories in the books. And that he has profited himself unreasonably from the fundraising juggernaut CAI has become. According to the report, CAI has raised $60 million in donations in its 15 years. Two point five million of that came from Mortenson’s Pennies for Peace program, which reaches school kids in nearly 3,000 U.S. schools and urges them to contribute. President Obama gave $100,000 of his Nobel Peace Prize money to Mortenson’s charity.
But, only about 44 percent of this haul, according to “60 Minutes,” has found its way to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Much of the rest has gone to promoting Mortenson’s books, for which he receives all of the royalties.
Another mountaineer and best-selling author, Jon Krakauer (Into Thin Air, Where Men Win Glory), told CBS’s Steve Kroft that Mortenson’s story “is a beautiful story, and it’s a lie.”
Mortenson is on the list of special guests scheduled to appear at this year’s 33rd annual festival over Memorial Day weekend. He was in Telluride with his family for last year’s festival. And, he told Festival Director David Holbrooke, he often came on his own in the festival’s early years, as a “dirtbag climber, camping in Town Park.”
The day after CBS’s airing of the “60 Minutes” program Krakauer published online, at Byliner Originals (www.byliner.com), an 80-page “take down” of his own titled Three Cups of Deceit.
In it, Krakauer details what he sees as two huge problems for Mortenson. One involves a “lack of oversight and accountability” at CAI. Mortenson, Krakauer wrote, “uses CAI as his personal ATM.” There are rules about how much someone can profit from his own nonprofit organization.
The other problem is potentially even more damaging in the long run, and that is the doubt cast on Mortenson’s veracity. Krakauer says that the founding “myth” of Three Cups of Tea is not true. In the book, Mortenson describes how, on failing to summit K2 in 1993, he got separated from his guide and wandered, weak and disoriented, into the village of Korphe. The people there nursed him back to health, and in his gratitude, Mortenson promised to return and build them a school. Krakauer says he tracked down Mortenson’s climbing partner on the K2 expedition, and the man said he and Mortenson were never separated, and that Mortenson had not even heard of Korphe until a year later.
In another episode, Mortenson claimed he was kidnapped and held for eight days in South Waziristan by Taliban fighters. Krakauer produced a photograph of the men standing around smiling, with Mortenson holding one of the AK-47s. A man in the picture, the director of a nonpartisan think tank in Islamabad, told Krakauer that far from being kidnappers, they were Mortenson’s guides and hosts and were offended to hear that “he had invented a false story.”
Mortenson declined to speak with CBS for the program, but he did submit written answers to questions. He admitted that some stories in his book might have been “compressed,” but insisted that the Korphe narrative was essentially true. As for the Taliban, Mortenson claimed that allegiances in the tribal areas were fluid, and that a man might be Taliban one day and not Taliban the next.
Of the financial claims brought against him, Mortenson said that the institute and Greg Mortenson would not exist one without the other, and that the large amounts paid out for his book tours and speaking engagements were justified in terms of fundraising and raising cultural awareness.
On “60 Minutes” Krakauer concluded: “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.”
Mountainfilm’s Holbrooke emailed Mortenson at home in Bozeman, Mt., Saturday night when he heard about the upcoming “60 Minutes” program. “My father told me: ‘When your friends are in trouble, reach out to them.’ He wrote right back and said ‘I really appreciate this.’ He said, ‘Let’s let the dust settle. And then in a week or two discuss my coming to Telluride.’ And that’s where we sit.
“We believe in hope,” Holbrooke said of the festival. “When there’s a hopeful story, we don’t have the resources to check every detail. We trust that people are telling us the truth. But I gotta say, that ‘60 Minutes’ piece was pretty damning.”