Three Cups of Tea: Can the good be saved?
Fabrications exposed in "Three Cups of Tea" by Greg Mortenson are calling into question the future of humanitarian work inspired by the book.
This story was originally covered by PRI's Here and Now. For more, listen to the audio above.
Greg Mortenson has been accused of literary fabrication in his book, "Three Cups of Tea." His nonprofit, the Central Asia Institute, stands accused of outright fraud. Author Jon Krakauer, who investigated the book, calls it "a beautiful story, and a lie."
During exposes by journalistic outfits like 60 Minutes, "there wasn't much time for the good side of Greg Mortenson," according to Alex Heard, an editor at Outside magazine who spoke with Mortenson. "I think that's going to emerge as their side is heard from a little more in the days and weeks ahead."
In the book, Mortenson described how Pakistani villagers rescued him when he wandered lost and exhausted while trying to climb a Himalayan peak. It turns out that his claim isn't entirely true. According to Heard, the author attributes the discrepancies "primarily to the publishing process -- he was working with a collaborator, a co-writer."
That excuse "doesn't really hold up ultimately," according to Heard. "That has to be seen as a fabrication the way it's presented in the book."
Mortenson also claims that he was kidnapped by the Taliban, and that may not be true either. Some of the accused kidnappers have now come forward, claiming that the episode was a lie. One of the accused is actually a research director for a think tank. "That whole episode may end up in court," according to Heard, "because the think tank man… has already threatened to sue for defamation of character."
The Central Asia Institute, a nonprofit founded by Mortenson, has also been accused of wrongdoing -- both fabricating information about how many schools it has built in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and using funds to profit Mortenson.
Heard believes that the Central Asia Institute needs to be much more clear in the coming days. "They're going to need to be really clear about how many of the schools are up and running and fully functioning," according to Heard. They also need to "draw the lines clearly between the nonprofit and [Mortenson's] own activities from which he profits."
In spite of the problems, Heard believes that the nonprofit can survive. "This is a huge and important nonprofit organization," Heard told Here and Now. And Mortenson may be able to be a big part of it. Heard says, "He still needs to be out there doing what he does, because he charms audiences and has a real ability to connect with people and raise money for what seems to be a very good cause."
The accusers should have their say, according to Heard. And then, when the facts are clear, Heard believes people have to "figure out if the exaggeration and the problems are enough that [Mortenson] should be out of the organization all together, or if there's way ahead that includes him and some reform and some apologies, and everybody just move on after that. "
Whether that is possible remains to be seen.
"Here and Now" is an essential midday news magazine for those who want the latest news and expanded conversation on today's hot-button topics: public affairs, foreign policy, science and technology, the arts and more.More "Here and Now".