Last night’s “60 Minutes” dropped the biggest bomb to hit the literary world since James Frey was exposed on the Smoking Gun. Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools, and the founder of the Central Asia Institute, a charity promoting education in Afghanistan, has been accused of mismanaging the charity’s funds and lying about key events portrayed in the books.
Author Jon Krakauer, who was an early supporter of Mortenson, is now among his detractors, saying, “it’s a beautiful story, and it’s a lie.” (More in CNN video below.)
Sources claim that Mortenson’s account of finding the village is incorrect, as is his story of being held captive by the Taliban—CBS contacted four of the men portrayed as Mortenson’s captors in the photo included in Stones Into Schools and they denied the claim. CNN says the Taliban had no presence in that part of Pakistan at the time. (I say it’s a shame CNN can’t spell “inspirational”.)
But what are a couple of details, in the face of an organization that has done so much good—and raised so much money? Well, it turns out that Mortenson may not have been on the up-and-up there either. The most damning evidence comes from this transcript from “60 Minutes”:
In fiscal year 2009, the charity spent $1.5 million on advertising to promote Mortenson’s books in national publications, including a full page ad in “The New Yorker.” And there are $1.3 million in domestic travel expenses, some for private jets.
Late last night (Saturday, April 16), we received a statement from the board of directors of the Central Asia Institute acknowledging that it receives no royalties or income from Greg Mortenson’s book sales or speaking engagements. But the board says the books and the speeches are an integral part of its mission, by raising public awareness and generating contributions. And it claims that Mortenson has personally contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the organization.
After talking to Mortenson about Stones Into Schools in 2009, BookPage contributor Alden Mudge noted the author’s “genuine personal appeal.” Mortenson said he spent “160 days” away from home in 2009, though he has cut way back on the time he spends abroad. It seems clear that he does see promoting the books as the best way to support his mission. “It is sometimes painful, but you have to let people do things themselves. So now I just call myself a cheerleader, or I say I am the Chief Tea Drinker,” he told us. And of course, without the books—and Mortenson—creating awareness of the project, there wouldn’t be more than 60 new schools in Afghanistan.
Mortenson has not responded on camera to the CNN or CBS stories, though he did comment online. He is scheduled to have heart surgery Thursday.