Three Cups of Tea, the book detailing Greg Mortenson’s happenstance decent into the world of charity and philanthropy, has sold over four million copies. As required reading for U.S. soldiers on their way to Afghanistan, and for plenty students in high school and college, its message about the importance of education in remote areas has made its way into many brains. Unlike many politicians and celebrities, the portrait of Mortenson presented in the book seems remarkably innocent, absent— or even naively unaware – of the egotism and greed evident in many public figures.
Therefore, the U.S. evening news show 60 Minutes surprised viewers when it produced an expose of sorts that associated Mortenson with a kind of greed and dishonesty unheard of in his books. Comments on the 60 Minutes website call the story a “bloody witch hunt” and a “shame,” suggesting that they “find a story or an organization worthy of criticism.” However, as a national news organization, it’s only expected that 60 Minutes sets out to discover the truth, especially in response to “complaints from former donors, board members, staffers, and charity watchdogs about Mortenson and the way he is running his non-profit organization.” What is surprising, however, is the ease with which Steve Kroft and the 60 Minutes team dramatized the story, presenting it as an outrage.
Upon first watch, the story reads like a scandal. And most viewers don’t watch more than once. The story, framed as a sassy response to an immensely popular book, man and institute presents itself as being above balance; it operates on the assumption that it gives balance to a scale already tilted in Mortenson’s favor. However, this assumption leads to a journalistically unsound piece. While the package documents several unsuccessful attempts to speak with Mortenson, it also excludes any comments that fans and co-workers might have been willing to make in Mortenson’s favor. But oddly enough, the LA Times, New York Times, BBC and ABC were able to procure quotes refuting 60 Minutes’ claims for stories in response to the piece. Let us review the claims in a less dramatized, more thorough manner.
The sensationalism begins with a bold claim from Jon Krakauer, author and $75,000 donor to Mortenson’s cause. “It’s a beautiful story, and it’s a lie,” he declares vehemently after a summary of Mortenson’s supposed tale. This allegation is solidified by claims from Mortenson’s porters that he never, in fact, stumbled into the village where he claims his aspirations all began. It is not solidified, however, by the segment’s footage of Krakauer scouring piles of books and papers as though completing very detailed research on Mortenson’s story—at least factually. Early on, the segment’s feigned candidness reveals its attempt to visually lure the reader into a state of belief.
But did Mortenson lie? In a rebuttal on abcnews.com, he points out that the stories he recalled for his book Three Cups of Tea took place more than 18 years ago—long enough to get some details mixed up. However, some disputed facts are clearly not the product of a faulty memory, like the difference between the three schools that Krakauer claims Mortenson built in Kunar Province, and the eleven schools Mortenson told Charlie Rose about. In addition, Krakauer claims that many of the schools Mortenson built are either non-existent or not operative. But is the failure of a school to function once Mortenson leaves his fault? The video refuses to take those questions into account, simply building the sensationalism with footage of a building that is less-than-impressive by the standards of its primarily western viewership. A BBC response story presents a more neutral perspective. While they claim that many schools Mortenson takes credit for were actually built by NATO’s Provincial Reconstruction Teams or the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, they also quote a CAI director in Afghanistan who is “ready to take any member of the press so that they can see [the CAI’s schools] for themselves.”
In an interview with an ABC correspondent, Mortenson speaks proudly of a village that built its own school when he and his people with the CAI couldn’t get to them. And later, he refers to the statistic that before his organization’s work, only 800 thousand children were in school in the Middle East, while now 9 million children are. Mortenson does not, however, make any direct claims that the CAI directly spurred this increase. But he’s still proud of it. Here, he demonstrates that even when another organization or group builds a school, he not only rejoices, but feels some sort of association—a “we’re-all-in-this-together” mentality. While this by no means serves as justifications for any embellishment or tall tales, it may help to explain the perceived half-truths that Mortenson has declared in regards to his school building.
Furthermore, this mentality might serve as a valid retort to another accusation brought against Mortenson—that he uses more money to speak in American than to build schools in underdeveloped nations. At first, this may indeed seem counterintuitive. But as an obviously devoted proponent of education, Mortenson understands the values of constructive, norm-building techniques. In an article on the website Real Clear Politics, former United States Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Jed Babbin claims that the war against terrorism “is, at its core, an ideological war.” As important as educating children in Pakistan and Afghanistan might be, educating Americans—those with power and money—is equally important in the war on terror. While this tactic rings impotent in the ears of realist politicians, it is both valid and effective from a constructivist norm-valuing perspective.
Krakauer also attacks Mortenson’s money management and organization skills. He claims that multiple people left the organization because “in so many words… Greg uses Central Asia Institute as his private ATM machine.” Kroft seems to goad these statements out of him, asking loaded and opinionated questions like “Do you think contributors are being misled?” on camera. A message board response to these accusations features a statement from Andrew Marcus, former board member of the Central Asia Institute, who claims that “the reason they resigned was because of discussions of the future, more philosophical differences.” To a viewer who has only heard of the book, Mortenson’s lack of management may come as a shock. But to anyone who has read Mortenson’s book, the fact that he is not especially well-versed in the field of running a whole organization does not qualify as news. Repeated references to inexperience, poor time-management skills, and the overwhelming nature of running a whole organization litter Three Cups of Tea, lending it a sense of modesty and truthfulness not new to anyone familiar with Mortenson.
But despite poor management skills, Mortenson at least possesses the ambition to not give up. Even when raising enough money or coordinating his duties in Pakistan with the duties of parenthood seem impossible, he works to complete both—something more than most can say. But 60 Minutes tries to portray this ambition as malignance, suggesting that Mortenson misspent pennies donated by “thousands of school children who emptied their piggy-banks.” Slow-motion footage of innocent-faced children dropping pennies accompanies this loaded language, again showcasing the producers’ desire to capitalize upon the element of scandal.
Another claim made against Mortenson accuses him of fabricating a story about being held captive. An interview with Mansur Khan Mahsud, pictured as a captor in the book, reveals that he in fact claims to have served as Mortenson’s protector. Whether his claims are valid, and whether this is a case of a fabricated story or simply a poorly captioned photo remains unclear. However, question over who provided and captioned the photo raises another key question that 60 Minutes conveniently forgets to ask: what about the book’s co-author? Even ABC’s piece documenting Mortenson’s response leaves mention of co-author David Oliver Relin to the very end. As a self-identified journalist, doesn’t Relin hold any responsibility for faulty facts? What of his duty to verify information before publishing? Rather than focus on the factual realities of the book’s publication, the 60 Minutes piece only reports on the tidbits worthy of exaggeration and melodrama.
It seems that most of what Kroft and his team turned up does not weigh too heavily upon the validity of the CAI’s mission. By no means should Mortenson be excused from distorting the truth. But the nature of this segment reveals more shocking truths about human nature than about Mortenson.
Theatrics sell. Just as 60 Minutes—and plenty of other news sources—plays up the drama, conflict and scandal in any news story, Mortenson seems to have played up the human interest traits of his story. Ironically, the piece that calls him out for attempting to draw readers in makes use of many of the same truth-distorting, viewer-guaranteeing tactics. Western society loves suspense, heartbreak, betrayal, and lies—and a non-fiction setting renders these characteristics all the more appealing. If Mortenson did in fact lie to sell books, society should question itself as well as him; why do we require embellishment to act on behalf of such a charitable cause? And before expecting an answer to this question from our media, we should look for it first and foremost in ourselves.
“Questions over Greg Mortenson’s stories.” 60 Minutes. 15 April 2011. Web.
Babbin, Jed. “Fighting the ideological war.” Real Clear Politics 6 March 2006. Web.
Kellogg, Carolyn. “Greg Mortenson responds to ’60 Minutes’ questions about his ‘Three Cups of Tea’ story.” April 2011. Los Angeles Times. Web.
Khan, M Ilyas and Bilal Sarwary. “Three Cups of Tea: The Pakistan and Afghan side.” BBC. April 2011. Web.
Dolak, Kevin and Dean Schabner. “’Three Cups of Tea’ Author Denies ’60 Minutes’ Claims.” ABC News. 17 April 2011.