Greg Mortenson & 60 Minutes
Previously I’ve written about Greg Mortenson, his non-profit, the Central Asia Institute, and his book about his journey to build schools for the children of rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. The book is called Three Cups of Tea, and its accuracy has been called into question by Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes and journalist Jon Krakauer. In addition to alleging that Mortenson’s autobiography is less than truthful (remind anyone of James Frey?), there are even more serious allegations of money mismanagement.
In addition to the tall tales that Mortenson supposedly told in his books, Krakauer and 60 Minutes are saying that Mortenson has not built as many schools as he claims he has. Many of the schools Mortenson claims that CAI has built or is funding are not currently functioning. Central Asia Institute has only furnished one audited financial statement in its 14 years. Several board members have quit over misgivings about financial accountability. And Mortenson’s travel costs are paid for by CAI while Mortenson himself retains speaking fees for speaking engagements and promotional tours for his books. The proceeds from the books go to Mortenson and not to the institute.
Some of the allegations here shouldn’t be terribly shocking to anyone who read Mortenson’s book. Mortenson himself admits that he is a poor planner, ineffective with time management, money management, and people management. But for some reason he has a knack with the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan. And no one is alleging that he isn’t an effective advocate for girls’ education in developing countries. No one is stating that he hasn’t vastly improved the lives of literally thousands of children. What they are claiming is that Mortenson has not been a good steward of CAI resources and that perhaps he’s indulged in some tall tales or some creative license with his story.
In one portion of the scandalous expose, 60 Minutes interviews a man that Mortenson identifies in a photo from his book as a member of the Taliban who kidnapped him for several days. Kroft interviews the man, and the man says he’s not Taliban and that he didn’t kidnap Mortenson. But honestly, if you were a member of the Taliban or if you had kidnapped someone, would it be in your best interest to admit to it on American national television? Why would we take this guy’s word at face value any more than we would Mortenson’s? And what due diligence did 60 Minutes undertake to ensure that this guy really was who and what he claims to be? We’re not told.
Three Cups of Tea was co-written by a seasoned journalist named David Oliver Relin. I have a hard time believing that he didn’t do any research on Greg Mortenson and his claims. After all, his professional reputation was on the line. I’d be interested in getting his take on things. Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times has asked that the public reserve judgment about Mortenson. Kristof is unimpeachable.
As for 60 Minutes and Krakauer, I’d like to say that, to be fair, the piece isn’t a complete hatchet job. Kroft indulges in some sensationalism in following Mortenson to a public book signing. Shame on you for grandstanding, Steve Kroft! It’s beneath you. And Krakauer may feel duped for having given $75,000 to a man who’s perhaps been less than truthful. Or maybe, just maybe, he’s envious of Mortenson’s greater success with his books. Krakauer wrote two bestsellers, one of which was made into a movie that was directed by Sean Penn. But his books haven’t sold as many copies as Greg’s, and Jon Krakauer probably can’t command the same speaking fees. Maybe his motivations are not entirely pure.
Even if Greg Mortenson has done a lot of good in the world, as I’m sure he has, he should still be held accountable. At the very least, Mortenson should start freely sharing audited financial statements on an annual basis. I cannot in good conscience recommend that anyone contribute one penny to CAI until this happens. Mortenson himself has admitted that he’s a lousy businessman. Why shouldn’t he continue to be the front man for his charity and hire someone else who’s experienced and knowledgeable to handle the day to day nitty gritty of being CAI’s executive director? I am sure that there are plenty of qualified individuals who would love the challenge of reforming such a worthy charity.
60 Minutes has tried to turn a hero into a charlatan. The truth is most likely somewhere between those two extremes. The jury’s still out on this matter, as far as I’m concerned. However, there are many questions that need to be answered. If Greg Mortenson is really concerned with helping the children of Pakistan and Afghanistan, then he’ll do his best to answer those questions honestly and to behave honorably with regards to the money that has been entrusted to him for those children’s welfare. Mr. Mortenson, the excuse of naivete will only get you so far. It’s time to grow up and do the right thing.
Entry filed under: Books, Celebrity, Children, Current Events, Education, Ethics, Foreign Policy, Human Rights, Media, Television, Women's Rights. Tags: 60 Minutes, Central Asia Institute, Greg Mortenson, James Frey, Jon Krakauer, New York Times, Steve Kroft, Three Cups of Tea.