Three Cups of Tripe

I confess, I didn't like Three Cups of Tea, which is awkward, because I keep getting given copies of it by people and institutions who assure me that the book will change my whole outlook on the world.  It seemed to be trying a little too hard to inspire me--and to signal, with unsubtle subtlety, what a swell guy Greg Mortenson was at heart.  It was the distilled essence of a class of book I call "Global Charity Sticky-Icky". I didn't finish it.

But I thought I just didn't like it.  I didn't suspect what CBS now alleges: that many of the best anecdotes in Mortenson's books are lies, and that his charity does more to promote Greg Mortenson than third-world education:

The heart of Mortenson's "Three Cups of Tea" is the story of a failed attempt in 1993 to climb the world's second-highest peak, K2.

On the way down, Mortenson says, he got lost and stumbled, alone and exhausted, into a remote mountain village in Pakistan named Korphe.

According to the book's narrative, the villagers cared for him and he promised to return to build a school there. In a remote village in Pakistan, "60 Minutes" found Mortenson's porters on that failed expedition. They say Mortenson didn't get lost and stumble into Korphe on his way down from K2. He visited the village a year later.

That's what famous author and mountaineer Jon Krakauer, a former donor to Mortenson's charity, says he found out, too. "It's a beautiful story. And it's a lie," says Krakauer. "I have spoken to one of his [Mortenson's] companions, a close friend, who hiked out from K2 with him and this companion said, 'Greg never heard of Korphe until a year later,'" Krakauer tells Kroft.

Mortenson did eventually build a school in Korphe, Krakauer says, "But if you read the first few chapters of that book, you realize, 'I am being taken for a ride here.'"

In "Three Cups of Tea," Mortenson writes of being kidnapped in the Waziristan region of Pakistan in 1996. In his second book, "Stones into Schools," Mortenson publishes a photograph of his alleged captors. In T.V. 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.

This sort of thing just mystifies me.  I have nightmares where a false story has gotten into one of my stories by accident; I wake up with a sick start, and the relief when I realize that it was just a dream is sweet indeed. I cannot imagine the thought process that would lead you to do this on purpose.  Leave aside the morality of it for the nonce--aren't people afraid of getting caught?  In this day and age, how can you hope to get away with passing off a photo of an Islamabad think-tanker as a terrorist who kidnapped you?

But of course if the allegations are true, he did get away with it for a long time.  Presumably, this started way back, with some harmless and undetectable fudge.  After all, all journalism is approximate sometimes.  It's gotten less so with the advent of recording technology, but when my recorder failed during an interview for my next column, I was forced to rely on my notes, and since I don't write as fast as people talk, this meant a lot of back and forth with the fact-checkers and the subject over whether I'd filled in the correct prepositions or gotten the right word order.  And obviously I do not videotape everything I see.  So we're all forced to contend with the certainty that errors can and do creep into our recollection.

Perhaps Mortenson's exaggerations started by just playing with the edges of this uncertainty--sexing up his quotes and the characters he met.  Then as nothing happened, he got bolder.  Especially since he was probably rewarded for his creativity--lightly fictionalized characters are usually livelier and more compelling than actual people, who tend not to speak in well crafted dialogue, or make exactly the perfect point upon which to pivot our story.

Still, I don't know how he could keep going on for so long, with nothing inside him saying "Stop, this is wrong . . . " or at least "Stop, this is really dangerous and you're going to get caught."  Which is, I suppose, the mainstay of real journalism: people still do surprise you.