Sunday, April 17, 2011

My reaction to 60 Minutes piece on Three Cups of Tea

Update: Greg Mortenson replies much more in depth in this article here. People should be harping on the guy who "co-authored" the book, it seems to me.

Steve Kroft and 60 Minutes ran a critical piece on Greg Mortenson tonight. I care because I just wrote a review of the book. The accusations boil down to the following:

1. While his achievements are incredible, not all of his stories are true. Some stories in Three Cups are fabricated or wildly exaggerated and there is evidence that some schools are in disrepair or weren't built by Mortenson.

2. The Central Asia Institute has only had one fully public audit of its books in the last 20 years.

3. Only 41% of Central Asia Institute spending goes to actual school-building. Much of the rest goes to U.S. promotion. The proceeds of Mortenson's books to go Mortenson and not CAI.

4. Mortenson declined on multiple occasions to be interviewed by 60 Minutes.

Mortenson and the CAI have responded on their website. My own response to each point above:

1. The book's co-author states in the Foreword that Mortenson gave him an enemies list to interview, and that many people had problems with Mortenson's style and lack of accountability in certain areas. So, there's not much of a story to me there. Several journalists have visited Mortenson's schools and vouched for his stories, helping propagate his message. So, we know it's not all lies.
One of his accusers in the 60 Minutes piece makes the point that thousands of children have been educated and that Mortenson "isn't a Bernie Madoff." But there are instances where witnesses can't corroborate his stories, say he's lying, and where Mortenson claims to have built more schools than he has. For example, in one war-torn province of Afghanistan Mortenson claimed to have built 11 schools. The actual number is supposedly three. Even his accuser notes that building any schools in that region was an incredible feat. But there are many places in Three Cups where Mortenson admits to not knowing how many schools he's actually built or is supporting. There's a lot of information missing about how thorough 60 Minutes investigation was. Given it'd be in one of the most physically and politically hostile environments on earth, I wonder how big the budget was for this piece.

I mentioned in my post that it took a huge leap of faith to believe the profundity of the villagers Mortenson conversed with was being accurately translated, or that Mortenson had the language skills to engage in the in-depth sorts of conversations he was involved in. Some parts of the book mention a translator, or difficult English, or state he was slowly learning, etc.

Mortenson has done something no one else has been or is willing to do. He's got to be a little bit nuts. I've known otherwise intelligent people who repeat falsehoods they fully believe are true, and I believe this is Mortenson's problem. If the way he's a little nuts is that he's sort of a compulsive liar, I'm okay with that. Because if there weren't thousands of children in schools run by his foundation to prove his story, and accolades from many journalists and government officials who've been there, then I'd say 60 Minutes was onto something. Quibbling about details of how he stumbled on Korphe seems silly. It seemed 60 Minutes was really relying/piggybacking on the work that Jon Krakauer did while writing his own yet-unpublished slam piece. I will read it when it's printed.

2. I agree this is problematic, but some of the murkiness of expenses is understandable. Mortenson flies off to Pakistan and disappears and doesn't track every receipt. Okay. His board can't reign him in or fire him because he is the CAI (Three Cups talks with board members who quit over Mortenson's antics).

3. CAI was paying Mortenson less than $30,000 a year for several years, barely enough to live on with his family (this went unmentioned by 60 Minutes). It doesn't surprise me that they decided he should keep his royalties and live off of them. CAI reports that Mortenson has donated large sums of his proceeds back to the organization and gives a full accounting to 60 Minutes' questions. (I think some of 60 Minutes questions are laughable.)

No charity sees 100% of its revenue go to its cause. If it costs $2,500 to build a school in Pakistan and $2,500 to fly across the U.S. to do a fundraiser, of course 50% of your expenses are going to be for U.S. promotions. The 41% number doesn't have a benchmark next to it. How do other charities measure up? No mention by 60 Minutes.

4. The guy lives like a recluse half the time, but I agree it's a bit odd given that he's been interviewed by many media outlets that he'd dodge 60 Minutes. Here is Mortenson's response to 60 Minutes' questions. Supposedly 60 Minutes didn't send the questions until last week. He stands by his Korphe story and I wouldn't totally discount his comments about Balti language.

Did Steve Kroft read either of the books? I doubt it from how he talked in the piece.

No comments: