Did Greg Mortenson Get the Shaft?
A new documentary argues that the Central Asia Institute’s founder was treated unfairly by "60 Minutes" and Jon Krakauer when they took him down in 2011. The newsmagazine and the author remain unfazed, and both stand by their original reporting.
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Who brought about the fall of Greg Mortenson? Was it CBS News and its award-winning program 60 Minutes? Author Jon Krakauer? Or should the Montana mountaineer and philanthropist get all the blame for his own undoing?
Such questions are at the heart of a new documentary, 3,000 Cups of Tea, created by Utah filmmaker Jennifer Jordan and her husband, cinematographer Jeff Rhoads. Subtitled Investigating the Rise and Ruin of Greg Mortenson, the documentary is a full-throated defense of Mortenson as a good but flawed man who didn’t deserve the rough media treatment he got starting in 2011. It’s set for a screening at the 2016 Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival, which opens in Canada on October 29.
3,000 Cups of Tea debuted in Jordan’s hometown of Salt Lake City last month, drawing a standing ovation and stirring up old tensions between Jordan and Krakauer, who, in Jordan’s telling, has something to answer for in the way he handled the story. At the premiere, Jordan claimed that Krakauer responded with hostility to her request that he answer questions for the project.
“I asked [Krakauer] for an interview, and he came back with a long personal and professional attack on me,” Jordan told the audience of more than 200, adding, “I don’t communicate with people who threaten me.” During the same discussion, Jordan did something that might raise eyebrows: she gave the audience Krakauer’s e-mail address, urging people to write him. “Tell him I sent you,” she quipped.
When informed by Outside that Jordan had done this, Krakauer said in an e-mail: “Sounds like Jordan has been taking lessons from Donald Trump.”
Krakauer has seen the film, and he said that nothing in it makes him question the accuracy or fairness of his work, which he has augmented over the years with new reporting. “I was struck immediately by how little Jordan relied on hard facts to make her case,” he wrote. “Most of the film consisted of interviews with Greg’s most loyal supporters, during which they made highly emotional statements about his good intentions. Greg was portrayed as a victim almost from start to finish. These weepy testimonials and flashes of anger were intended to tug hard at viewers’ heartstrings, and they did.”
A week after the screening, Krakauer and Jordan sparred on a Salt Lake City radio program, arguing about the truthfulness of Mortenson’s book Three Cups of Tea. One point of contention was whether facts really matter that much in this case, given that some of what Mortenson accomplished—like educating children in one of the roughest parts of the world—was ultimately positive.
“That he was able to build the number of schools he did was an incredible achievement,” Jordan said during the broadcast. “There are mistakes. Greg has owned them, the board has owned them. But the bottom line, I think, particularly given where we are in the world right now, is that the education of these villages, of these people, is crucially more important than trying to put an American sensibility on this area of the world.”
“Absolutely it matters,” Krakauer argued. “People need to believe. They need to believe that the leaders of [nonprofits] are telling them the truth.”
Published in early 2009, Three Cups of Tea was wildly successful. The story told of Mortenson’s accidental 1993 visit to the village of Korphe, Pakistan, where locals nursed the climber back to health after a failed attempt at scaling K2. Mortenson said the encounter spurred his school-building mission, which he wrote about in Three Cups of Tea, captivating readers worldwide, flooding the Central Asia Institute with tens of millions in donations, and earning Mortenson more than one Nobel Peace Prize nomination.
But then came the fall. In 2011, a 60 Minutes segment and a simultaneous e-book by Krakauer, Three Cups of Deceit, accused Mortenson of lying about many of the heartwarming stories told in Three Cups of Tea; lying about the number of schools CAI had built and about the condition of some of them; and mismanaging tens of millions of dollars, thereby defrauding donors.
A 2012 investigation by the Montana attorney general’s office concluded that 60 Minutes and Krakauer were right about the oversight issues. The AG’s report said that CAI was plagued with financial-management problems and that Mortenson had spent donations on personal items such as “charter flights for family vacations, clothing, and internet downloads.”
No criminal charges were brought, but a settlement agreement required Mortenson to pay back more than $1 million to CAI and barred him from holding any future financial-management positions in the organization.
In a separate civil proceeding, plaintiffs from Montana brought a $5 million class action against Mortenson in 2011. The case alleged fraud, deceit, breach of contract, and racketeering on the part of Mortenson and CAI. It was tossed out by a federal judge in 2012, a decision later upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
As a journalist and a self-described fan of 60 Minutes, Jordan said she was dismayed by what she considered a one-sided story, so she was determined to figure out how Mortenson, her longtime friend, landed in the newsmagazine’s crosshairs. “I didn’t start this project to exonerate Greg,” Jordan says in the film, which she narrates. “I started it to see if the [CAI] mission was still viable and to look into how the report was investigated.”
To do that, Jordan and Rhoads packed up their cameras and headed to Pakistan to visit dozens of CAI schools and interview village leaders, students, and others familiar with Mortenson’s mission. Jordan says that people came from far and wide to talk to her about the “crazy American media scandal” that had branded Mortenson a liar. She also spoke with Mortenson, current and former CAI board members, and Mortenson’s family.
The result is a sympathetic portrait of Mortenson as a selfless visionary, a man who doesn’t function well within the constraints of Western business culture but worked tirelessly to bring education to remote corners of the world, often at the expense of his family life and health.
“He really does see things from outside the norm,” Mortenson’s wife, Tara Bishop, says in the film. “And in that is a lot of creativity.”
Beautifully shot, 3,000 Cups of Tea cost nearly $95,000 to make and was paid for with donations and proceeds from a life insurance policy Jordan cashed in. It’s loaded with images of dramatic landscapes and eager, adorable schoolchildren who sing and dance at Mortenson’s side. Watching him coach kids through their lessons, it’s hard to question his dedication as an educator.
Which is not to say that Jordan’s film presents a man without flaws. Mortenson admits to commingling the charity’s money with his own, and current and former CAI board members like George E. McCowan and Abdul Jabarr talk about the nonprofit’s problems.
“Things happened too fast. We were way too successful,” Mortenson tells Jordan. “It’s like a tree with too much fruit—it just fell over.… I thought I could do everything myself. It was a very big mistake.”
Board members are quick to say that Mortenson was never a good money manager. Still, they say, he was “accountable to the children and the schools,” and they deny that any CAI donors were defrauded.
They also seem to downplay both the seriousness of the Montana AG’s findings and the falsehoods in Three Cups of Tea. Instead, board members and others, including Mortenson and Bishop, blame media reports for his fall and the subsequent dramatic drop in donations that has hampered CAI’s work.
On the advice of their attorneys, neither Mortenson nor anyone from CAI’s board was interviewed for the 60 Minutes piece, something that Mortenson says he now regrets. The documentary contends that 60 Minutes never took its cameras to Korphe and was guilty of shoddy reporting, including misrepresenting sources and failing to include interviews with Mortenson supporters or people who could corroborate his stories—such as Korphe residents who told Jordan they remembered him from 1993.
At the time of the initial controversy, Outside’s Grayson Schaffer investigated whether Mortenson’s Korphe story seemed credible. He concluded that it did not. Jordan contends that Mortenson’s version of events was truncated by a book editor and his coauthor, the late David Oliver Relin, who worked to cut hundreds of pages from his original manuscript. “And yes,” she says, “he owns the mistake he made in not insisting that they leave it as he wrote it.”
Jordan seeks to further alter the record through interviews with those she claims were passed over by CBS, including Mortenson’s K2 climbing partner, Scott Darsney, and two porters who were with the men in 1993. Another interviewee is Sabina Khan, a Pakistani American journalist who gives her own account of CAI’s successes in Pakistan, based on her own reporting.
Jordan told Outside that she visited 45 villages in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where she said most communities have some CAI representation, including a school, a trained teacher, a child with a scholarship, a water-sanitation program, or a women’s vocational center. “As our jeeps traveled through those villages, even in the ones we didn’t plan on stopping in, we were stopped by villagers eager to thank Greg for his work,” she said in an e-mail.
The film notes a rise in education rates in Pakistan overall but is short on statistical data showing the impact of CAI’s work. A check of the agency’s website says that it has 451 projects operating in three countries and helped more than 98,000 individuals in 2015 alone.
Krakauer maintains that the film is lacking something important: critical voices who might have assessed Mortenson more skeptically. “The list of obvious people Jordan made no effort to interview includes Governor [Steve] Bullock of Montana, who was the attorney general in 2011–12 and led the investigation of Greg,” Krakauer wrote. “Nor did Jordan interview any ex-CIA employees—five of whom, including four ex–program directors, have thanked me for writing Three Cups of Deceit, because it revealed the truth about how much waste and fraud there was at CAI.”
Jordan told Outside that she sought interviews with nearly two dozen of Mortenson’s detractors and critics, but many didn’t want to speak on camera and others didn’t respond. No one from 60 Minutes, including its reporter Steve Kroft, agreed to be interviewed for Jordan’s film. (In a statement provided to Outside, a 60 Minutes spokesman said the program stands by its story.) Krakauer also declined to participate. He says he made that decision because, after a series of e-mail exchanges with Jordan, he concluded that he didn’t trust her.
The film challenges Krakauer’s sources and reporting, noting that he’s never been to Korphe, and suggests that he maliciously sought to discredit Mortenson because he was jealous over the popularity of Mortenson’s books.
Krakauer rejects any such suggestions. In fact, the author says, he was so moved by Mortenson’s sincerity and commitment during CAI’s early days that he donated $75,000 and held a fundraiser for the group. He said he had heard as early as 2004 that Mortenson was misusing CAI funds and began to redirect his own charity dollars. When he finally read Three Cups of Tea in 2010, Krakauer said, the discovery of fabrications in the story left him troubled.
“Ashamed that I had helped persuade many thousands of people to give their hard-earned money to a charlatan,” he wrote to Outside, “I launched an investigation of the charity to make amends and resolved to stay on the case until things got back on track.”
During a Q and A session with the audience following the Salt Lake City screening, Jordan claimed that the “powerful” Colorado-based Krakauer had blocked some people from speaking to her for the film. She also said he threatened her in an e-mail when she raised questions about one of his Korphe-based sources. A still shot of the communication is shown in the film.
“I don’t know why he feels the need to threaten me,” Jordan told the audience, which responded with a few jeers. Asked about her decision to reveal Krakauer’s e-mail, Jordan now says that wasn’t her “finest” moment. She chalks it up to being carried away by the positive response to the film and by years of “bullying, intimidation, looming bankruptcy, backlash, and pushback” she experienced while making it.
Krakauer says he never tried to stop Jordan from making her film and encouraged other CAI critics to sit for interviews. But he also said he believes Jordan has long disliked him, though he doesn’t know why and doesn’t believe they’ve ever met.
And, yes, a few people from Jordan’s audience have written him. “They were not love letters,” Krakauer said.
Jennifer Dobner (@JenniferDobner) reports on criminal justice and LGBTQ rights for the Salt Lake Tribune.