Here Is How The New York Times Covers -- And Fails To Cover -- The Greg Mortenson Story
‘Three Cups of Tea’ Author Defends Book
While the publishing industry waited to see whether it faced the embarrassment of yet another partly fabricated memoir, Greg Mortenson, the co-author of the best-selling “Three Cups of Tea,” a book popular with the Pentagon for its inspirational lessons on Afghanistan and Pakistan, forcefully countered a CBS News report on Sunday that questioned the facts of his book and the management of his charitable organization.
The report could puncture a hole in the uplifting narrative of “Three Cups of Tea,” which has fed a charity run by Mr. Mortenson, the Central Asia Institute. The institute has built schools, mostly for girls, in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The report has also revived a chronic concern in the publishing industry over the accuracy of nonfiction memoirs, which are typically only lightly fact-checked by publishers, if at all.
Viking, the imprint of Penguin Group USA that published “Three Cups of Tea,” declined to comment on the book or answer questions about how it was vetted.
The CBS News report questioned, in particular, a central anecdote of the book that was as dramatic as it was inspirational: in 1993, Mr. Mortenson was retreating after failing to reach the summit of K2, the world’s second highest mountain, when, lost and dehydrated, he stumbled across the small village of Korphe in northeast Pakistan. After the villagers there nursed him back to health, he vowed to return and build a school.
The CBS report, broadcast on “60 Minutes” Sunday night and citing sources, said that Mr. Mortenson had actually visited Korphe nearly one year after his K2 attempt. Mr. Mortenson said on Sunday that he did reach Korphe after his climb in 1993, and that he visited again in 1994. [BUT WHAT ABOUT THE MISUSE OF MIILLIONS OF DOLLARS OF CENTRAL ASIA INSTITUTE MONEY TO FURTHER HIS OWN BOOK AND THE ROYALTIES HE GETS?}
But he added a disclaimer in an interview with The Bozeman Daily Chronicle, saying that while he stood by the information in the book, “the time about our final days on K2 and ongoing journey to Korphe village and Skardu is a compressed version of events that took place in the fall of 1993.”
Viking has maintained near silence since the report trickled out on Friday, saying on Saturday that it relied on its authors “to tell the truth, and they are contractually obligated to do so.”
For the publisher, the situation with Mr. Mortenson was not as clear cut as it was with another of its authors, Margaret Seltzer, who wrote “Love and Consequences,” a memoir discovered to be fraudulent only days after it was published in 2008. Riverhead Books, the unit of Penguin that published “Love and Consequences,” immediately recalled all 19,000 copies, offered refunds to readers who had bought it and canceled Ms. Seltzer’s book tour.
“Three Cups of Tea” had a modest start when it was released in hardcover in 2006 but took off after it was published in paperback.
Set in the remote mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, it would be a difficult exercise in fact-checking for any publisher.
“It really is the responsibility of the author to write the truth,” said David Black, a literary agent. “If a publisher were to establish a fact-checking department the way a magazine fact checks, given the length of the works and the number of books they are dealing with, it would become very difficult to publish a lot of nonfiction.”
William Zinsser, who is the author of “Writing About Your Life: A Journey Into the Past,” said on Sunday that publishers have had a “slippery” standard for accuracy in memoirs.
“I don’t think they much care whether it’s true or not,” Mr. Zinsser said. “To me, the essence of memoir writing is absolute truth because I think everybody gains that way.”
Mr. Mortenson declined requests for an interview on Sunday, but he released a memo to several news outlets detailing responses to the “60 Minutes” report. He also forwarded a cheerful e-mail to his staff, sent early Sunday morning, telling them that after suffering from “low oxygen” for 18 months, he had recently been found to have a heart ailment and would be undergoing a surgical procedure on Thursday to correct it.
“Don’t let NYC sensational TV mess with Montana, or the tens of thousands of girls and boys we empower through education, our supporters will rally!” he wrote.
Mr. Mortenson founded the Central Asia Institute in 1996. It was initially financed by Dr. Jean Hoerni, a Swiss physicist who was a veteran of Silicon Valley. Based in Bozeman, Mont., where Mr. Mortenson lives, it was a tiny organization that raised just $1.7 million the year “Three Cups of Tea” was published.
The charity’s tax forms list the locations of its schools and how many students it serves. In the 2009 fiscal year, it reported 54 schools in Afghanistan serving 28,475 students, of which 21,165 were girls.
“60 Minutes” said it went to almost 30 of the schools and that roughly half were empty, built by someone else or not receiving any support.
Jeff McMillan, Mr. Mortenson’s personal assistant, said that in some cases, the charity had paid for the building of the schools, while in others, it underwrites things like teachers’ salaries and supplies.
He also said that the Afghan school year began on March 23. “I don’t know when CBS was there, but if it was when school was out, the schools would appear to be empty,” he said.
Thanks to his books and charity, Mr. Mortenson found a welcome place on the international lecture circuit and forged relationships with military officials in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Top Pentagon officials, who have had a broad and deepening relationship with Mr. Mortenson, reacted cautiously on Sunday. They declined to comment on the accusations against Mr. Mortenson or his charity but said they continued to support his work.
“We continue to believe in the logic of what Greg is trying to accomplish in Afghanistan and Pakistan because we know the powerful effects that education can have on eroding the root causes of extremism,” said a military official, who asked not to be named under ground rules imposed by the Pentagon.[ahd what are the "root causes of extremism"? Lack of schools for girls? Lack of money for guns? What?]
In person Mr. Mortenson has a guileless, open and at times awkward demeanor ["guileless demeanor" he may have, but he's clearly full of guile] that has endeared him to the thousands of schoolchildren and church groups he speaks to across the country. He has long said that he has little ability to handle finances, large organizations or his increasingly public life.
“I am awkward, soft-spoken, ineloquent and intensely shy,” he wrote in “Stones Into Schools,” the 2009 sequel to “Three Cups of Tea.” For that reason, he added, “the duties of speaking, promoting and fund-raising into which I have been thrust during the last several years have often made me feel like a man caught in the act of conducting an illicit affair with the dark side of his own personality.”