It’s a journalistic axiom that when your phone rings early on a Monday, from a blocked number, it’s generally not because somebody loves your work. I picked up to hear an angry Lance Armstrong on the line, along with Doug Ulman, the CEO of the Lance Armstrong Foundation—a.k.a. Livestrong. It was 8 a.m. in Austin. They were calling to berate me about what they considered my bias against Livestrong and Lance.
Which seemed strange, since I wasn’t working on a Livestrong article. Not yet, anyway. Granted, I’d been sniffing around and had posted a tweet or two, but nothing more. One of those posts was written on April 17, 2011, the day 60 Minutes aired its report on Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute. According to allegations made by Steve Kroft and Jon Krakauer, Mortenson had used foundation money to fly himself around and promote his books, which were full of lies about his adventures in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the charges went, the organization wasn’t operating nearly as many schools as Mortenson liked to claim.
“60 Minutes takedown,” I tweeted, “just goes to show that ‘awareness’ is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Admittedly, I had both Mortenson and Armstrong in mind when I wrote this: both were facing legal investigations, and both would end up using their philanthropic work as part of their PR defense. The “awareness” wording was a jab at Livestrong, since raising cancer awareness is a major part of the organization’s mission.
A lame joke, perhaps, but that’s all it was. Still, it made Armstrong livid. “You need to come down here and see what we do,” he said sternly. “Ask us the hard questions.” It was more a command than a request. “I know you’re a hater and you’re gonna write what you write, but I just want you to see it.”
At the time, Armstrong was starting to take some serious flak of his own. The Jeff Novitzky–led federal investigation into his past was dragging former teammates and associates in front of a Los Angeles grand jury. In January, Sports Illustrated published an exposé that supported Floyd Landis’s claims that Armstrong had doped to win his seven Tour de France titles. Now 60 Minutes was said to be working on its own, more damaging story.
In the wake of the Mortenson report, bloggers and journalists (not just this one) were asking pointed questions about Livestrong, the disease-fighting charity that Armstrong founded in 1997, during his recovery from testicular cancer. Cynics wondered whether Armstrong was another Mortenson, living large on his foundation’s dime. After all, Armstrong had recently spent $11 million on a personal jet. Was he really rich enough to pay for that out of his own pocket?
“The issue with Lance Armstrong isn’t whether he has done good for cancer victims,” accounting professor Mark Zimbelman wrote on his blog Fraudbytes, in a post comparing Mortenson to Armstrong, “but rather, whether he first cheated to beat his opponents, then used his fraudulent titles to help promote an organization that appears to do good but also enriches a fraudster.”