The problem with “Three Cups of Tea” and the 60 Minutes attack

“It’s a beautiful story and it’s a lie,” said Jon Krakauer at the beginning of yersterday’s 60 Minute piece attacking Greg Mortenson, his books Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, and the Central Asia Institute.

It didn’t stop with Krakauer.

“Totally false. He’s lying,” said a man pictured as a terrorist in Three Cups, but who is actually a respected academic in Pakistan.

“Greg uses CAI as his private ATM,” claimed a former board member of CAI.

“Grossly exaggerated.”

“Outright fabrication.”

“A steaming load of horseshit peppered with corn kernels of wisdom.” Me.

Thee Cups of Lies

After a failed summit attempt of K2, Mortenson stumbled into the village of Korphe where he was nursed back to health and promised a little girl he would return to build a school.

How touching.

Too bad it didn’t happen like that. Mortenson admits to having “compressed time” and 60 Minutes even showed a pre-book article by Mortenson for the American Himalayan Foundation with the true order of events: Mortenson hiked off K2 just fine and first stepped foot in Korphe a year later.

Compressed time equals lying. So does reordering events or any other time shenanigans that don’t involve a flux capacitor, 1.21 gigawatts of power, and a DeLorean.

Nothing drives me crazier than a short author’s note at the beginning of a book stating that some of the events have been reordered for the narrative’s sake, still Three Cups should’ve had one.

(Warning: Some of the following has been reordered to make my life more interesting in an effort to sell more books.)

I was on SCUBA at 200’ and I couldn’t feel my body. There was a great white to my right, a hammerhead swimming straight at me, and I was circled by 200 reef sharks. The heart of the diver next to me gave out. He drowned in his own blood. Another diver gave up on life and let his regulator fall from his mouth. I shoved it back, grabbed him by the tank, and navigated my way through the sharks to the surface. It was just another day at the office. And, oh yeah, I was five.

(The following paragraph has every shark I’ve ever seen in it, and recounts nearly every dramatic experience that has happened in my 800+ dives. And I was five, one time.)

Hey, lazy! Here’s an idea. Ever heard of verb tense? You can use it to talk about things that happened before, during, or even after an event. It’s like time travel, but you don’t have to lie to the reader and you aren’t in danger of causing a rip in the fabric of time. You should try it sometime.

I was especially disappointed that David Oliver Relin’s name wasn’t mentioned. Did 60 Minutes try to contact him? I can understand Mortenson – not a writer – being lazy and compressing the narrative, but Relin studied at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop and should have more than enough writing tools and ethics to not “compress time” of real life events.

60 Minutes also claimed Mortenson wasn’t captured by Taliban fighters for eight days. They interviewed a few of his “captors.” This seems a little less provable on both sides. After all, what happens in Waziristan, stays in Waziristan.

Stones into Thin Air

60 Minutes visited thirty some schools that CAI claimed to build and support and found that half of them were either no longer being used, were built by someone else, were supported by someone else, or never existed in the first place.

Ouch! What good is building a school if it’s not being used?

Which brings us to the money trail. 60 Minutes poured into CAI’s 2009 tax return and found some pretty ugly findings:

  • The group spent more on promoting Mortenson’s books than on educating girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
  • Mortenson gets $30K/talk, but CAI pays his travel expenses to speaking engagements. That doesn’t make sense. I get paid a fraction (a fraction!) of that for speaking and schools always pay my travel expenses.

60 Minutes’ 20-minute hack job

This is a big story. It involves a national hero, one of the bestselling books of the decade, and claims of lies and fraud. This story is so big that 60 Minutes dedicated a whopping 20 minutes to it.  If they would’ve focused on some of the known truths in addition to some of the maybe falsehoods, the piece should’ve been twice as long.

The segment ends with a quote from 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…”

The show spent 19 minutes and 30 seconds lobbing grenades at Mortenson and in the very last quote they add, “he might be lying about a lot of stuff, but he’s done a lot of amazing things too.” They should’ve visited a school that was up and running to get the opinions of teachers and students who had been impacted positively by Mortenson.

Mortenson earns $180K salary from CAI and gets 50-cents for every book he sells not to mention a $30K honorarium for speaking. If Mortenson is fabricating schools out of thin air and using CAI as “his personal ATM” what is he doing with all that money? I’ve heard that Mortenson spends more than 200 days in central Asia each year. The piece does a good job of tackling the If and the Maybe, but they don’t touch on or speculate on the Why. Is he just a greedy bastard who likes to caravan around Taliban controlled regions for shits and giggles? That doesn’t make any sense to me.

Yes, 60 Minutes poked a lot of holes that needed poking in Mortenson’s story, but they left plenty of holes in their own.

My Take

I’m not surprised that parts of Mortenson’s story have been altered from reality. As a writer I roll up to the crossroads of truth now and again. It can be really tempting to alter a story a bit. In an early draft of Where Am I Wearing? I altered when we bought a flatscreen TV for our home. It had little relevance to the story and no one would ever know differently, but every time I came to the part about the TV, it bugged me. I knew. It would’ve been easier to just leave it as it was, but I changed it.

As a writer, or as a kindergartner, for that matter, you have to know that if you don’t tell the truth all the time then everything you do or say will be doubted.

Now we’re doubting the good that Mortenson has done. And no doubt he’s done a lot of good. The fact that the military often consults with Mortenson is more than enough endorsement for me that he is doing some of what he claims to do and, at the very least, really knows what he’s talking about.

Last summer I was invited to talk in Columbus, Indiana. The town was using Three Cups of Tea for their annual community reading program. They couldn’t afford Mortenson, but they could afford me. I was honored to stand in his place. Still am. If half of what he’s written is true, he’s a great man.

I suspect we’ll discover in the next few weeks if he’s greater than his flaws.

What’s your take on the Mortenson story?

I was at Target yesterday and found the placement of these books to be rather ironic.

Ironic placement of "3 cups of tea" given yesterday's 60 minutes story

joe says:

Did you read that pdf ebook (see here )?

I can’t get over the idea that the charity was buying retail copies of the book to keep it in the best seller lists.

joe says:

Oops sorry this is the ebook link

Kelsey says:

Thanks Joe. I did get the ebook. Crazy, crazy stuff and I’ve yet to hear anything that legitimately refutes these claims. So sad.

Great site you have here.. It’s hard to find great quality writing like yours these days.I genuinely acknowledge individuals like you!
Take care!!

Let your voice be heard!