Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Greg Mortenson Speaks

After writing my post about the Krakauer vs. Mortenson scandal, I started reading several articles that tried to defend Greg Mortenson and/or discredit Jon Krakauer.  I read the articles with great interest, and thought that perhaps I had been a little too tough on Greg.  After all, his organization did build a lot of schools in Pakistan, right?  And what if Mr. Krakauer had it all wrong?  I started to feel that maybe, just maybe, I was piling on Mr. Mortenson a bit.  So in the interest of being fair and telling Greg’s side of the story, allow me to present an interview with Greg Mortenson, and my comments pertaining to the interview.

Greg gave an interview on his web site regarding the “60 Minutes” television piece and the Krakauer articleYou can read the entire interview here (click here).  I’ll summarize for those of you who would rather read the short version.

First of all, Greg addresses the allegations that the stories in the book “Three Cups of Tea” are fabricated or at least stretched.  In my last post I mentioned the story about Greg getting lost and wandering into a remote village half-dead, and another story about being abducted and imprisoned by Taliban-esque tribesmen.  There were other alleged fabrications, but these seemed to me to be the most interesting.  I came to the conclusion that these fabrications, if accurately denounced by Krakauer, were ultimately fairly benign in the grand scheme of issues presented.  And that is more of an indictment on the more serious issues than an attempt to sweep the stories under the rug.  But some people I’ve talked to were quite annoyed by the thought that Greg would “stretch the truth” in order to make his book more exciting and compelling.  And I can see their point.  The alleged fabrications diminish his credibility, which in turn makes one look more suspiciously at the other, more serious allegations.  So it’s a good place to start.  So, were the stories made up?  Well, sort of.  To quote Greg from Greg’s interview, 

“What happens then is, when you re-create the scenes [for the book], you have my recollections, the different memories of those involved, you have his writing, and sometimes things come out different. In order to be convenient, there were some omissions. If we included everything I did from 1993 to 2003 it would take three books to write it. So there were some omissions and compressions, and … I don’t know, what that’s called?”

Literary license? 

“Yeah. So, rather than me going two or three times to one place, he would synthesize it into one trip. I would squawk about it and be told that it would all work out.”

(Note that I'm not sure if I can quote from the web site, so I may have to take these quotes down at some point.  I'll try to keep the quotes brief but I want to be as truthful as possible to what Greg actually said.)

Ok, so Greg is admitting that the story is not 100% factual.  He also seems to be saying that maybe the co-writer David Oliver Relin had more to do with the fabrications.  Which again, I can accept to a point.  But let’s get down to brass tacks:  Was the story about getting lost and ending up at Korphe/Khane truth or fiction?

But you stand by the Korphe story as it was written?

“Well, there are discrepancies that, again, have to do with compression of events.”

And I’ll paraphrase the compression of events from Greg’s perspective.  Greg did in fact wander into Korphe, not Khane, making a wrong turn as he approached the village of Askole.  He stayed in Korphe for the afternoon and then continued on his way to Askole.  About a year later he went back to Korphe and decided to build a school there.  So it wasn’t quite the dramatic near-death-school-building-revelatory experience, but a slightly more drawn-out-mundane-gradual-realization experience.  Not a compelling story.  I’m a little bored just paraphrasing it for you.

And no mention about the Khane village thing, wherein Krakauer accuses Mortenson of promising to build a school in Khane, and then reneging on the deal and building one in Korphe anyway.  That’s the more distasteful part of this whole story, but Greg doesn’t get asked that question. 

On to the “Taliban” in Waziristan.  In “Three Cups of Tea” Greg claims to be abducted and imprisoned.  Krakauer claims nothing of the sort happened.  The reason this is important is that if false, it indicates that Greg is willing to invent a “bad guy” in order to make his message more urgent.

Greg’s response:

“Anyway, that whole story [about being abducted, etc.] is pretty much accurate. I was detained during my time there. My passport was taken from me, my money was taken from me, and when I was moved a blanket was put over my head. Initially, the first two days, I got really depressed because I didn’t know what exactly was going on. I didn’t try to run away or anything, but I did try to be very kind and befriend the people.”


“I wasn’t allowed to leave, and I was kept in a room, very small, with one window and a burlap sack and a bed in it. I always had one or two armed guards with me, smoking a lot of hashish.”

What Greg is saying may be technically accurate.  Maybe he was initially detained and then was able to talk to and work with his captors and guards, once they determined that they could trust him.  Maybe he was detained at a particular checkpoint for some time.  Heck that kind of stuff happened to me in Ghana from time to time.  Maybe he had to be hidden for a while for his own good, either to conceal his presence from other locals or even government officials.  Having admitted to using some literacy license already, one has to wonder exactly how much is made up.  The question is, as a potential donor, as a reader of the book, does it bother you?  Does it matter?  If you knew going into the book that it was “mostly” factual, or even “basically” factual, would you be more willing to accept that maybe not all of these things actually happened, would you still get something out of the message?  I think it’s a fair question to ask, and I think it is totally fine to be on either side of this divide.  Personally I'm more willing to accept the fabrications but others are less willing, and I respect that.

Greg then goes on the offensive a bit, which I like to see.  The interviewer and Greg spend some time explaining how Krakauer and 60 Minutes basically ambushed him for interviews at the last minute, while Greg’s health was (and remains?) poor, and did not give him a fair chance to respond to the allegations:

“On April 13th [2011, Krakauer] sent me this email saying, I’ve been trying through a mutual friend to get in touch with you, you’ve avoided me, never gotten back, and now I need to meet you by Saturday or Sunday, because we have a story coming out and it’s really important that I talk to you.”


“I was at a gathering called the Community Service Leadership Convention at a Hyatt hotel, mostly with college and high-school kids. I got done and was at a book signing with two or three hundred kids, with some adults, too.

Out of the blue, there’s a rush by Kroft and two cameramen. They got on both sides of me and I looked to my right and he said, “Steve Kroft.” I said, “Excuse me?” He said, I’m Steve Kroft and I’d like to talk to you and can you give me five minutes? This was all on film, so perhaps my exact words here, from memory, are not verbatim.”

The point being that according to Greg, neither Krakauer nor 60 minutes gave him enough time to respond to the allegations presented before publishing the article and airing the TV broadcast.  This is a bit of he-said-she-said, since Krakauer, for his part, did claim to be trying to reach Mortenson well before his article was published.  The idea here is to try to provoke some sympathy for Greg.

But all of this is kind of irrelevant, the Jon-said-Greg-said stuff.  The truth is illusive.  Financial statements are a little less open to interpretation, however.

The things I found most disturbing about Krakauer’s article were that less than 50% of the money coming in to CAI was going to what I consider actual charity work, and that the primary reason for that low percentage was that CAI was footing the bill for Greg’s speaking tours and actually using charitable funds to purchase copies of “Three Cups of Tea” at retail cost.

What does Greg have to say about those allegations?

“Using charter flights, which I only started doing in 2009, allowed me to pack in many more cities. I get about 2,400 speaking requests a year. About 400 of the ones last year were offering to pay money. So I mix them. And, since January, I have totally paid for all my own travel.”

You pay all your own travel now?

Yes, since mid-January”

That’s progress, at least!  One problem I see is the inherent conflict of interest present between the book “Three Cups of Tea”, whose sales benefit Greg and his co-writer only, and the charity, whose donations benefit Greg also.  Since the book is sort of the mouthpiece of the charity, it is difficult to separate one from the other.  And while it may not be illegal, it seems odd to be spending CAI money to promote and purchase a book that is pretty much about CAI and its mission, but the proceeds of which do not come back to the charity directly.  And Greg understands this now as well:

CAI, Three Cups of Tea, and Greg Mortenson are pretty much all part of each other. As much as it would be great to separate everything, we’re all intricately woven. They said CAI needs me, and I’m really the only reason CAI can exist right now.”

I’m not sure if the final statement is true but having said that, really the next logical step is to either completely separate the book and the charity, or sign over the royalties to CAI.  Seems like Greg is opting more for the former strategy by starting to pay for all his own travel.  Hopefully this also means that CAI will no longer by purchasing books with donated money.  But Greg didn’t go that far.  In fact, when asked why less than 50% of CAI’s money goes to building schools, Greg offers this defense:

“much of the [money that didn’t go to building schools] was spent on CAI’s other charitable programs, which include domestic outreach and education about the need for the schools. Our education mission includes both educating young people in Pakistan and Afghanistan—especially girls—and educating the American public about how promoting education in these countries contributes to peace. CAI has been setting aside funds, now totaling over $20 million, that will be restricted to provide scholarships, teacher training, and maintain the schools and their programs for years to come.”

Domestic outreach and education sounds like traveling around the country and spending lots of money on copies of “Three Cups of Tea”, to me.  Granted I get that charities need to spend some money on domestic outreach, or marketing, or something to bring in the donations, but it still seems like CAI is spending way too much money on these sorts of things.  I think a good benchmark for administrative expenses for a charity is probably 25%, or less, depending on the type of charity.  I know that CAI doesn’t see domestic outreach as an administrative expense, and I suppose that is where the divide exists.  If you are willing to accept that a core part of the mission of CAI is domestic outreach and speaking engagements, then you can accept that CAI is spending donations appropriately.  If you think that those activities, even though they might be worthwhile, are not the raison d'ĂȘtre of CAI, then you must conclude that CAI is not spending donations appropriately.

I come away from the interview thinking that Greg understands why people might be upset by the allegations, and that he is trying to address some of them and improve how CAI and Greg himself do business.  Greg probably didn’t think anything he was doing was all that offensive or wrong, and I doubt he’ll change completely.  It remains to be seen if 60 Minutes and Jon Krakauer have successfully prosecuted CAI and Greg Mortenson in the court of public opinion.  I would say that most people I have talked to about this affair have concluded that Greg and CAI have been performing poorly and spending inappropriately.  But some have defended Greg, and will continue to do so.  Personally, I’ll give my money to another charity, thank you very much. 

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