Brace yourself for a new Central Asian conflict involving powerful American forces, and count on this one to last a while. The combatants: 60 Minutes and Jon Krakauer, who have squared off against Greg Mortenson, the best-selling author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools and the charismatic leader of the Central Asia Institute (CAI), the Bozeman, Montana-based nonprofit that raises millions to build schools in remote parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In a report that aired Sunday night April 17, 2011, on 60 Minutes, and in a separate investigative piece forthcoming from Krakauer, Mortenson is under heavy attack over everything from the veracity of his nonfiction memoirs—particularly a famous story in Three Cups of Tea recounting his first visit to Korphe, a mountain village in Pakistan—to the financial management of CAI. Assessing the possible damage, Time’s Nick Carbone wrote, “Looks like Mortenson’s writing has the potential to be shattered into a million little pieces.”
Mortenson himself kept a low profile over the weekend, on the mend from a heart condition that has left him with chest pains and breathing difficulties. He spoke only to his local newspaper, The Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and to Outside. In an exclusive series of interviews with editorial director Alex Heard, Mortenson admitted to making mistakes both as a writer and nonprofit manager, but he made it clear that he intends to fight against the most serious allegations and can count on extensive support.
Watch Outside’s Facebook page and Twitter feed (@outsidemagazine) for further updates. To see previous coverage of Greg Mortenson and CAI, check out Kevin Fedarko’s December 2008 profile, “No Bachcheh Left Behind,” and Mark Jenkins’s December 2001 column, “Seismic Shift.”
Greg, the 60 Minutes segment claimed that there are major fabrications in Three Cups of Tea. Are there factual errors in the book, and if so, how did they get there?
To answer that, it’s important to have some background. I started writing Three Cups of Tea in 2002, doing six chapters myself. I went to New York to four publishers and they all said the same thing: The story’s great but the writing sucks. [Laughs.]
That fall, Kevin Fedarko came over to Pakistan to do a story for Outside about the Siachen Glacier war—we arranged all the logistics to get him to the front lines of the India-Pakistan war zone—and on the way out he came to Korphe with me, where he witnessed a scene in which a woman named Jahan came up, walked into a circle of elders I was sitting with, and said, “I’m ready to go to medical training. You promised me you’d help, so here’s my proposal.”
After that trip, Kevin wrote a Parade magazine article about me in 2003, and the Siachen story and Parade put us on the map. Then Lee Kravitz, who was the editor of Parade, called me and said, I’ve got a book writer for you. This was David Oliver Relin, who co-authored Three Cups of Tea with me and has joint copyright.
That’s where some of the issues are. It’s really complicated, but I’m not a journalist. I don’t take a lot of notes. David and I collaborated. He did nearly all the writing, and along with hundreds of interviews of those involved in the story, I helped him piece together the whole timeline, and from that we started creating the narrative arc and everything.