Greg Mortenson, whose memoir Three Cups of Tea tells of his time in Pakistan and his efforts to build schools there, is defending allegations that he fabricated parts of that best-selling book. Mortenson is reportedly attributing some of the blame to his co-author, journalist David Oliver Relin.
The claims against Mortenson have engendered comparisons to James Frey who was criticized for making up parts of his memoir A Million Little Pieces. It also reminds iMediaEthics of our investigation into Jared Diamond New Yorker essay in which his stories about events in Papua New Guinea are challenged by nearly every person mentioned by name in them.
Allegations reported on CBS’ 60 Minutes claim that two key parts of Three Cups of Tea are inaccurate.
First, Mortenson stated in his book that he “stumbled” upon the Pakistan town of Korphe in 1993 after trying to climb the mountain K2. 60 Minutes reported that Mortenson’s “porters” say that’s not accurate.
Second, Mortenson said in his book that he was kidnapped in 1996 in Waziristan, Pakistan. But, 60 Minutes fact-checked those claims by finding and interviewing two men ID’ed in a photo by Mortenson as “alleged captors.” Those two, and two witnesses, reportedly denied Mortenson’s claims.
According to the Daily Mail, Mortenson attributed “some omissions and compressions” of his story’s transfer into book format to his his lack of journalism background.
“What happens then is, when you re-create the scenes, you have my recollections, the different memories of those involved, you have his writing, and sometimes things come out different.”
In an interview with Outside magazine, Mortenson called the issues “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.”
Mortenson added that Relin “would synethesize” some of the events and trips into one event. “I would squawk about it and be told that it would all work out.”
However, comments by Mortenson in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle counter his blaming Relin, saying that “as the co-author of the book,” he is “responsible for the content in the book.”
Mortenson also said: “I hope these allegations and attacks, the people doing these things, know this could be devastating for tens of thousands of girls, for the sake of Nielsen ratings and Emmys. I stand by the information conveyed in my book.”
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Private ATM machine?
Jon Krakauer, author of Into the Wild and Into Thin Air and “an early supporter” of Mortenson’s, criticized Mortenson on 60 Minutes and claimed that Mortenson “used Central Asia Institute as his private ATM machine.”
The Central Asia Institute is a non-profit organization Mortenson co-founded and writes about in Three Cups of Tea.
Krakauer went on to allege that “Mortenson has lied about the noble deeds he has done, the risks he has taken, the people he has met, the number of schools he has built.”
Mortenson stands by his book and his account of being kidnapped and going to Korphe in 1993.
In a statement, Mortenson attributed the “discrepancy” of accounts because “Balti people have a completely different notion about time.”
“The concept of past and future is rarely of concern. Often tenses are left out of discussion, although everyone knows what is implied.”
He reiterated that his first visit to Korphe was in 1993 “after failing to summit K2” and that he visited five times in the next three years. In response to questions about CAI’s work, Mortenson suggested 60 Minutes source was “a former disgruntled manager, who was involved in some improprieties.”
CTV reported that Mortenson criticized 60 Minutes for calling his wife before calling his office or publicist when reaching out for comment.
After the segment about Mortenson on 60 Minutes, Viking–the book’s publisher–is reportedly reviewing the book.
“Greg Mortenson’s work as a humanitarian in Afghanistan and Pakistan has provided tens of thousands of children with an education,” Carolyn Coleburn, a spokeswoman for Viking reportedly said. “60 Minutes is a serious news organization and in the wake of their report, Viking plans to carefully review the materials with the author.”
iMediaEthics is writing to the Central Asia Institute, Relin and Mortenson for comment and will update with any response.