CBS News 60 Minutes: “Three Cups of Tea” Author Fabricated Stories in Book

According to an investigation by Steve Croft of CBS’ 60 Minutes, a number of stories in Greg Mortenson’s bestselling book may be false or exaggerated.

The heart of Mortenson’s “Three Cups of Tea” is the story of a failed attempt in 1993 to climb the world’s second-highest peak, K2.

On the way down, Mortenson says, he got lost and stumbled, alone and exhausted, into a remote mountain village in Pakistan named Korphe.

According to the book’s narrative, the villagers cared for him and he promised to return to build a school there. In a remote village in Pakistan, “60 Minutes” found Mortenson’s porters on that failed expedition. They say Mortenson didn’t get lost and stumble into Korphe on his way down from K2. He visited the village a year later.

That’s what famous author and mountaineer Jon Krakauer, a former donor to Mortenson’s charity, says he found out, too. “It’s a beautiful story. And it’s a lie,” says Krakauer. “I have spoken to one of his [Mortenson’s] companions, a close friend, who hiked out from K2 with him and this companion said, ‘Greg never heard of Korphe until a year later,'” Krakauer tells Kroft.

Mortenson also claimed to have been kidnapped and held for eight days by the Taliban in Waziristan. In his new book, Stones into Schools, he included a photo of three of his supposed captors.

“60 Minutes” located three of the men in the photo, all of whom denied that they were Taliban and denied that they had kidnapped Mortenson. One the men in the photo is the research director of a respected think tank in Islamabad, Mansur Khan Mahsud.

He tells Steve Kroft that he and the others in the photo were Mortenson’s protectors, not his kidnappers. “We treated him as a guest and took care of him,” says Mahsud. “This is totally false and he is lying.”

Kroft also talked to Daniel Borochoff of the American Institute of Philanthropy, who says that Mortenson’s foundation, The Central Asia Institute, spends most of the donations to promote his books. Jon Krakauer told 60 Minutes that he stopped donating after he learned from a former member of the Central Asia Institute board that that Mortenson uses the Central Asia Institute “as his private ATM machine.”

Kroft says he visited schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan that Mortenson supposedly has built and funded. He found that “some of them were empty, built by somebody else, or simply didn’t exist at all. The principals of a number of schools said they had not received any money from CAI in years.” But Mortenson blamed a “disgruntled employee” for not paying teachers and didn’t respond to the other accusations.

Mortenson has ignored CBS’s requests for an interview, but he defended himself in his hometown newspaper, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

“I hope these allegations and attacks, the people doing these things, know this could be devastating for tens of thousands of girls, for the sake of Nielsen ratings and Emmys,” Mortenson told the Chronicle in a phone interview Friday.

“I stand by the information conveyed in my book,” he wrote in a statement, “and by the value of CAI’s work in empowering local communities to build and operate schools that have educated more than 60,000 students.”

In the statement, Mortenson implied that the central story of his book was falsified.

The book told how Mortenson got lost on a 1993 climb of K2, the world’s second highest peak, and then stumbled exhausted into the remote village of Korphe, was cared for by villagers, and promised to return and build a school.

“I stand by the story of ‘Three Cups of Tea,'” Mortenson said in a written statement, but added, “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….What was done was to simplify the sequence of events for the purposes of telling what was, at times, a complicated story.”

According to records examined by the paper, the CAI pays Mortenson $180,000 per year. In 2009, the charity took in $14 million, of which it spent “$4.6 million on travel, guest lectures and educating Americans about the plight of Pakistani and Afghan children.” It spent $3.6 million on “schools overseas.” Mortenson told the Daily News that “as of now,” he will be paying his own travel expenses.

I haven’t read Mortenson’s books, mainly because they always sounded a little too good to be true to me. A blogger at Discover Magazine, Razib Kahn, wrote something similar based on actual knowledge:

I’ve been a bit skeptical of the details of Greg Mortenson’s story in his book Three Cups of Tea for years. It seems be to so predicated on contemporary biases about the basic universal goodness of human nature. I hoped everything was true, but it seemed too good to be true. Other people who worked in Afghan NGOs tended to tell a more gritty and gray story, so either Mortenson was embellishing, or he had a special magic touch. Since I don’t believe in magic touches, I wondered as to the nature of embellishment.

Kahn still says he’s not going to judge until he learns more.

A quick Google search shows that Mortenson has spoken at numerous colleges and universities as well as high schools and middle schools around the country. If any of this is true, a lot of young people are going to be very disillusioned.

17 Comments on “CBS News 60 Minutes: “Three Cups of Tea” Author Fabricated Stories in Book”

  1. bostonboomer says:

    Class of the Week: St, John’s second graders.

    After reading a book called Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson about the lack of educational opportunities in Afghanistan and Pakistan, they decided to join in on his program called Pennies for Peace.

    Xavier Hackel says, “We donate all the pennies to build schools and for the little kids and stuff so they can learn. We build schools for the women because the men leave the city. So, women can still stay there will the knowledge and stuff. It really helps the community.”

    The class put change buckets throughout their school and community. In just a few weeks time, they’ve collected $750. That money will be put to good use.

    Here’s a break down of how it could be used.

    One penny buys one pencil. $2 is a teachers salary for one day. $20 will buy one student school supplies for an entire year.

    It might not seem like much to us but these students understand how much it will be to the students who now have a chance to learn.

    Andrea Bargender adds, “They are probably going to be happy because they can go to school and they can actually get a job then.”

  2. bostonboomer says:

    University of Louisville to present Mortenson with award.

    The award is given annually in five fields, including education, and comes with a $100,000 prize. Mortenson is scheduled to speak on campus on Sept. 23.

  3. Peggy Sue says:

    Mortenson was on BookTV [I think that’s where I saw and heard him]. He gave a beautiful presentation and the audience was wowed, after which he participated in a Q&A, adding additional stories and anecdotes. The whole presentation was very moving.

    And now this. Doesn’t anyone tell the truth anymore? Compressing a timeline for the sake of storytelling is one thing. Changing the facts is fiction writing, period.

    No wonder this is The Age of Cynicism.

  4. fiscalliberal says:

    BB-following link addresses what we were talking about last night

    Jobs record of a lot of presidents as tabulatd by WSJ

  5. Guy says:

    CBS 60 Minutes has been both an exposer and muck-raker; time will tell which role it plays here. Personally I find it hard to believe that Mr. Mortenson finds the huge amount of travel self gratifying, but only rewwarding if the net financial gain was going to a greater good. I sincerely hope for ultimate vindication, yet even more so for fair evaluation.

    • bostonboomer says:

      I too hope 60 Minutes is wrong.

      • Jadzia says:

        I’ve only got one degree of separation from Mortensen (friends in Bozeman), and suspect that 60 Minutes is right.

      • bostonboomer says:

        Hi Jadzia,

        I just watched the 60 Minutes report, and it was pretty damning. As Jon Krakauer said it’s a shame, because Mortenson has done a lot of good and he’s on the verge of bringing it all down.

  6. Minkoff Minx says:

    Was this an Oprah book of the month selection? Honestly…nothing surprises me anymore.

  7. David Parsons says:

    As one who has worked in Honduras helping with medical clinics 6 yrs in a row, the first thing u have to know is it is NOT… the USA. Things happen differently, and I felt probably like many others who do “benevolent deeds” and read his book, only the names and places have been changed cuz that is how it happens when you cross away from our border..its at their pace not ours that happens.
    To be honest, my impression of JKraukaur after reading his into thin air and wild is he really tries to be “politically correct” so he can ride the fence. To make such statements as he is quote don 60 minutes, be a man and openly confront Mr. Mortenson for clarification and address the quotes they took from you. Journalism… why cant they call it telling the truth— oh, cuz its not, its called making a buck and too many in america eat it up. I would be open to venturing that Mr. Mortenson has done more positive things than anyone else in the places he travels to, and the country is much better b/c of him. As far as “personal ATM”, give me a freaking break. I’d love to hire him to run this country— he gets things done, unlike what we have.
    I will continue to support him and his work. Maybe there are some discrepancies, but they will not be if there are any, enuf to take away from what he has done. On the other hand, i will not buy JK’s book on Tillman as I almost did yesterday. Instead, I will dontate the money to a foundation if he has one. This whole things makes me sick…. but not directed at Mr GM.

    • bostonboomer says:

      Mortenson is one “making a buck.” Lots and lots of bucks. Krakauer donated $75,000 of his own money to Mortenson’s charity. He has a right to be concerned.

      Krakauer himself said that Mortenson has done a lot of good, but he doesn’t understand why Mortenson needed to lie about his experiences and exaggerate how much he has done.

      He may have confronted Mortenson directly–I don’t know and neither do you. Right now Mortenson could end up being investigated for fraud–is that a good way to help others? Why didn’t he give any of the proceeds from his books and lectures to his charity? Why have so many board members become queasy about his accounting procedures and resigned?

      After you answer those questions, you can lecture me about not understanding foreign countries–you have no clue what I know or understan, but you presume to know my motivations. That doesn’t say much for your intellictual abilities, David.