Needless to say, I was disappointed to hear the news that some of Greg’s story had been fabricated. 60 Minutes ran a piece, last night, questioning some of Greg’s claims, and it looked at his organization’s work. The piece did not reflect well on Greg or Central Asia Institute (CAI).
While one could say it is one person’s word against Greg, there are a few things that give me pause.
Since it was revealed what angle 60 Minutes was going with their story, Greg Mortenson has clarified some of his past remarks about his story. He seems to be getting cute with words as to not appear lying. The only problem is he now appears to not be completely forthright. It’s one thing to say the book takes “literary license” with what happened, but then Greg has perpetuated that literary license when he has given presentations. It’s on him and not the co-author.
The people he alleged to be Taliban terrorists that kidnapped him are not terrorists and apparently did not kidnap him. 60 Minutes interviewed one of the individuals, and he claims he’s protecting Greg. Again, Greg is getting cute with words and now saying he was “detained”, and that they were from an area where Taliban were.*
*Him posing with an AK-47 with his alleged kidnappers doesn’t help matters.
How CAI spent its finances is cause for concern. Of course, one can understand Greg would need to fly to various locations on behalf of the organization. Still, only forty-one cents of every dollar is going to build schools? More money is spent domestically, “promoting the importance of building schools”, than on what the organization’s mission is in Afghanistan and Pakistan? As someone who has worked in the non-profit sector for over fifteen years, this was a red flag to me.
Could 60 Minutes be wrong? It’s possible. 60 Minutes was behind the Killian document controversy, and I didn’t like how they ambushed Greg at a book signing. I understand they’ve attempted to talk to him about this story, and he hasn’t responded, but I still didn’t like the ambush. It’s also easy to believe how people would be against Greg’s work (with educating girls and promoting peace in Afghanistan and Pakistan) and would try to undermine it.
That being said…
I would say Greg fabricated parts of his story. That is disappointing. Even more so is he didn’t need to change details about it. As Jon Krakauer said in the 60 Minutes piece, Greg has done a lot of good in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He’s made a difference in the lives of thousands of people. He’s championed education for girls around the world. He has inspired thousands upon thousands of people. I think that still happens if he sticks to the truth, but unfortunately his story and work are undone in the eyes of many.
The questions about what CAI is spending money on is alarming as well.
Greg saying in some of his response to the 60 Minutes piece that they just started to clean up the financials is nice, but this organization has been around for fifteen years. Saying they just started to rectify some of the financial questions has me wondering what they were doing beforehand. It gives support to the 60 Minutes piece about a great amount of finances being used on travel and marketing.
If an organization is being conned, as Greg states in Outside, then it needs to be forthright with its supporters. I don’t think that has happened with Greg and CAI, being forthright. Saying now they were conned, and not at the time, doesn’t help matters.
I didn’t like how 60 Minutes ambushed him at a book signing, but I didn’t like Greg’s response in Outside where he linked the journalist to a “suicide bomber”.
No one likes it when they are called to account. Greg can call the 60 Minutes piece an “11th-hour attack”, but the facts remain the same. Greg fabricated part of his story, repeated the fabrications when he spoke, and there are legitimate questions about CAI’s spending. I think everyone would like it when being held accountable we would have advance notice so they could get their story straight. That doesn’t happen in life.
Greg has done a lot of good, and I hope he continues to do so. I just hope we’re given an honest reflection of his work, and that the finances and resources being used for it are being put to good use.
I’m sure more will come out about this in the coming weeks and months. If anything changes, I’m sure I’ll write about it. For now, I’m disappointed with Greg Mortenson and Central Asia Institute.
Here are some posts related to this story, as well as response from Greg and CAI.
4.21.2011 Update – I added a link to Nicholas Kristof’s column, in the New York Times, about the controversy. I’ve admired Kristof’s writing and work, and thought he provided a thoughtful response.
60 Minutes transcript
New York Times – ‘Three Cups of Tea’ Author Defends His Book
New York Times – Publisher of ‘Three Cups of Tea’ to Conduct Review
Nicholas Kristof – ‘Three Cups of Tea,’ Spilled
L.A. Times – Greg Mortenson responds to ’60 Minutes’ questions about his ‘Three Cups of Tea’ story
Outside – Greg Mortenson Speaks
Bozeman Daily Chronicle – Mortenson under fire from 60 Minutes
AP – Report: ‘Three Cups of Tea’ inaccurate
Three Cups of Deceit by Jon Krakauer
Greg Mortenson’s response to 60 Minutes
Greg Mortenson’s message to supporters
Central Asia Institute’s response to 60 Minutes
Central Asia Institute statement