(Update 4/19: Jon Krakauer also challenges Mortenson)
Another blow for heroic memoir writers and the people who love them: Serious questions about Greg Mortenson, author of the bestselling “Three Cups of Tea.”
In a “60 Minutes” investigation aired Sunday night, critics of Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute — with a stated mission to build and support schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan — argued that the charity did far less than claimed and that the almost $60 million raised was primarily spent promoting Mortenson and his book.
“I’m shocked,” said Rima Al- Sabah, wife of Kuwait’s ambassador to Washington. “I hope that the allegations are untrue.”
Like so many others, Al-Sabah and her husband were introduced to Mortenson’s work through his book, which has been on the New York Times bestseller list for four years. “We loved what he was doing and we wanted to help,” she told us. Inspired, she raised $2 million for the CAI and honored Mortenson at the Kuwait-America Foundation dinner in March of last year with actor Michael Douglas, then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, and other Washington A-listers. Mortenson spoke movingly of how the money would help young girls get the education they deserved. “He told us he would be building about 60 schools with the money raised,” Al-Sabah said. “And I will hold him accountable to that.”
The Al-Sabahs weren’t the only one’s inspired by Mortenson: President Obama donated $100,000 of his Nobel Peace Prize money to CAI; President Clinton singled out the author for praise in “Giving.”
Mortenson did not appear on the CBS segment and denies the claims. His publisher, Viking Books, is less convinced. “ ‘60 Minutes’ is a serious news organization and in the wake of their report, Viking plans to carefully review the materials with the author,” said a spokeswoman.
On Monday afternoon, Mortenson e-mailed a statement to supporters, “in the midst of these difficult and challenging” days. “I welcome and am used to facing criticism, which sometimes even turns into hostility and threats, over the important work we do in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” He called the “60 Minutes” story “a distorted picture using inaccurate information, innuendo and a microscopic focus on one year’s (2009) IRS 990 financial, and a few points in the book “Three Cups of Tea” that occurred almost 18 years ago.” The e-mail goes on to say, “We have always maintained that our work is about investing in relationships, respecting elders, and listening over a time span that stretches generations, not in one that lasts just a few minutes on prime time television.”
He also announced he’s having surgery this week for a hole in his heart. After recovery, “I will come out fighting for what is right and just, and be able to talk to the media,” he wrote.
Mortenson did not return our calls for comment.
See also: Update: Jon Krakauer slams Greg Mortenson in digital expose, April 19, 2011