Three cups of hyperbole, dash of fraud optional

by Sunita

Reader alert: not about romance, but definitely about publishing and probably about fiction.

I watched two-thirds of 60 Minutes this past Sunday, something I haven’t done in many years. I knew they were going to do a piece on Greg Mortenson, the Three Cups of Tea guy who has been building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It was classic 60 Minutes, complete with ambush of subject by tan-raincoat-wearing journalist. It was also depressing. Even though one of the main sources for the criticism was Jon Krakauer, who has had some nonfiction-embellishment issues himself, I came away thinking that Mortenson’s not-for-profit foundation, the Central Asia Institute, was at best shoddy in its accounting practices, and at worst fraudulent.

The core of the case against Mortenson and the Institute was laid out in an LA Times story which quotes the 60 Minutes press release. The New York Times followed up with a story posted online Sunday night, which strangely focused on the discrepancy between Mortenson’s account of finding his village and what others have said. Strangely, because that isn’t the big story, especially for a memoir. The big story is the financial information 60 Minutes dug up:

(1) The Institute spent more money on outreach programs in the United States, “educating” people about schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, than it did building schools in those countries. This in and of itself is not evidence of fraud (although it does raise concerns), given the relative costs of travel, construction, etc. in each context. But the story gets worse.

(2) In fourteen years, the Institute has provided ONE audited financial statement. That’s it. And that was after considerable prodding from a watchdog organization, American Institute of Philanthropy.

(3) Greg Mortenson, in his capacity as Executive Director of the Institute, received a salary of $145,309 in 2008. He gives many speeches, for which he charges at least $25,000 each. The Institute spends $1.5 million on outreach and education, according to its tax statement, and the AIP infers that

at least some of this $1.5 million includes expenses related to Mortenson’s speaking events. If CAI is going to take credit for Mortenson’s speaking engagements as a program expense of the charity, it makes sense that it should be entitled to a portion of any revenues, such as speaker’s fees, generated at these events. Nowhere on CAI’s 2008 tax form does it report revenue from speaker’s fees, and CAI would not respond to AIP’s question as to whether or not the charity receives any of the fees or ticket sales from these events.

(3) In other words, Greg Mortenson is (i) compensated by the Institute through his salary and (ii) compensated by the places where he gives speeches. He is probably also (iii) compensated by the Institute for the expenses incurred in giving these speeches and outreach programs, even though the Institute has provided no evidence that any of the money Mortenson receives is going back to the Institute.

As I said, at best this is sloppy and inefficient financial accounting. Thirteen years’ worth. At worst, this is someone treating the receipts of a charitable, not-for-profit organization as a personal cash kitty. Much of this cash is donated by people who think the goal of the Institute is critically important and that Mortenson is a person of integrity. He may be, but right now I am not filled with confidence.

There is another set of “exaggerations” which 60 Minutes detailed, one of which the LA Times highlighted, which is of particular interest to me as an academic who conducts field work in South Asia and who relies on the kindness and assistance of local experts. The Times quotes the 60 Minutes press release:

In television appearances, he has said he was kidnapped for eight days by the Taliban. 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 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 isn’t just a memoir distortion to shrug our shoulders about. This is unconscionable. It’s bad enough to make up being kidnapped by the Taliban. But to claim that your host is a terrorist? A host who writes for Foreign Policy? And you smear his extended family and friends, too, for good measure?

Over the course of my many research trips, as well as in more casual conversations with friends in India who are scholars, policy officials, and the like, the subject of credit by foreign visitors recurs. Some scholars and writers and generous and thorough in acknowledging the help they’ve received. Others are less so, and the word gets around quickly. What Mortenson did is really beyond the pale. Not only did he reinforce inflammatory stereotypes about how Americans are treated in South Asia, he ignored the opportunity to show a side of the region which undermines these stereotypes and demonstrates that Pakistanis can be intelligent, generous, and well-educated. But I suppose that would have worked against his message that Afghanis and Pakistanis are so poor and reactionary that they need Greg Mortenson’s help and your money to improve the lot of their children.

Right now the comment boards at the NYT, the LAT, and 60 Minutes are running in favor of Mortenson, castigating the media for failing to understand how wonderful he and the Institute are. And that may be the most depressing thing of all.

And, as I finish writing this, the NYT‘s Media Decoder blog reports that Viking “plans to review the book and its contents with the author.” According to the story, the publisher’s action represents “a strong signal that Viking, an imprint of Penguin, is not convinced of the accuracy of Mr. Mortenson’s book.”

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