Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Three Cups of Deceit

The book world (and news in general) is on fire this week amid allegations that Greg Mortenson's bestselling memoir Three Cups of Tea and its sequel Stones into Schools may not be truthful after all.

Jon Krakauer, a respected journalist and bestselling author, this week published an 89-page expose entitled Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way. The article comes immediately following a 60 Minutes episode which also suggests that much of the books may have been fabricated.
Mortenson declined an interview with 60 Minutes. Krakauer also attempted an interview with Mortenson, cautioning him that the article was going to make serious allegations and accusations, and offering a digitally-recorded interview which Mortenson would be allowed a copy of as well. Mortenson scheduled the interview, but requested they not record the interview and later backed out of it altogether. Mortenson is undergoing heart surgery this week to repair a hole in his heart.

Greg Mortenson has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for the past three years. In 2010, the Central Asia Insitute (CAI) received $23 million in donations, many from people who read Mortenson's books and/or attended one of his many speaking engagements. Three Cups of Tea has been on bestseller lists for more than four years. Now, according to some, it appears we've all been duped.

In his article, Krakauer quotes a variety of sources who tell vastly different stories than Mortenson. Some of these are as simple as which village Mortenson originally visited and promised a school to. One of the more serious allegations of Three Cups of Tea comes when Mortenson describes being kidnapped by members of the Tailban for eight days. Photos have now surfaced with Mortenson, during his alleged captivity and with the alleged kidnappers: Mortenson himself is also holding a gun and ammunition and appears to be smiling. Some now say the men Mortenson claimed to have kidnapped him were actually there to protect him. One of the alleged kidnappers is now suing Mortenson for defamation of character.

Aside from the questions about the kidnapping, Krakauer brings to light issues of the financial aspect of Mortenson's work. Former board members and ex-employees are quoted throughout, detailing Mortenson's lack of communication with CAI (in spite of their funding of his travels) and refusal to provide receipts or other evidence of how he has spent their money. Mortenson has also been known to buy extremely high copies of his books through retailers, guaranteeing that he will receive royalties and that the books will continue to rank as bestsellers. If Mortenson purchased the books from the publisher at wholesaler prices, as would be standard, he would not receive royalties and those sales would not count towards bestseller lists. Krakauer himself was a donor to CAI and halted donations when discrepancies in their financial statements were brought to his attention as well as questions of Mortenson's accountability regarding his spending.

CAI's board of directors (consisting of Mortenson and two others) released the following statement April 16:
"Greg has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the organization, which includes a percentage of his royalties from his books, and worked for the organization without compensation for a number of years."
However, Krakauer found no evidence of this on the financial records provided on CAI's website. He also claims that financial records from both CAI and the American Himalayan Foundation show Mortenson as receiving a salary every year since 1995.

Many donors have sent money to CAI expecting their funds to be used to build and maintain schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, to send children to school amid war and terror. In 2009, CAI spent just under $4 million building and operating schools in those countries. However, they spend $4.6 million on "Domestic outreach and education, lectures, and guest appearances across the United States."

Krakauer's investigation into the schools themselves brought further shock: at least 18 of these schools stand empty. Some claim that the CAI's funding stops once schools are built, leaving communities no way to pay for the teachers or supplies to actually run the school. Others claim a lack of planning: one school is built a long walk away from the village in spite of current classes being held within the village, giving students no reason to make such a journey. Mortenson has repeatedly claimed that CAI does provide teacher training and support. There's also a question of the number of schools built. For example, in an interview with Charlie Rose on July 27, 2010, Mortenson said 11 school had been built in Afghanistan's Konar Province. Krakauer's investigation found only three had been built at the time of the interview, and one more in the year since.

Krakauer's article makes extremely serious accusations. However, he does recognize Mortenson's advocacy work and believes CAI may still do much needed good, provided they leave Mortenson behind.

Viking, the publisher of Three Cups of Tea, has announced an investigation into Mortenson's book in light of 60 Minutes and Krakauer's article.

Krakauer's article can be read here through April 20th.

A CBS article can be read  here which includes links to Mortenson's statements since the 60 Minutes episode.

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