Five months ago, scandal engulfed a guy from Montana named Greg Mortenson.
He’d made a name for himself through a book called Three Cups of Tea, which is his story of accidentally becoming one of the world’s most inspiring humanitarians. Through the book, which remained on the New York Times bestseller list for four years, Mortenson inspired tens of thousands — if not millions — of people to support his nonprofit organization, the Central Asia Institute. He even managed to get himself nominated on more than one occasion for the Nobel Peace Prize. President Obama himself donated a hundred grand to the cause.
Then came April of this year, when 60 Minutes aired a report suggesting that this seemingly unanimous enthusiasm might have been misguided, citing allegations from well-known writer Jon Krakauer and others that some of the most impressive and inspiring stories in Three Cups of Tea were either grossly exaggerated or completely bogus, and that Mortenson was responsible for appalling misuse of his organization’s funds. Here’s the 60 Minutes segment, in case you’d like to get up to speed that way:
Mortenson responded to CBS with a short statement and a longer statement, and the CAI board issued a response to the accusations as well; you can read them for yourself if you’d like. I didn’t blog about any of this at the time, partly because deep down I wanted to believe Mortenson was being falsely maligned (honestly, who didn’t love Three Cups?), but also because about a million other bloggers suddenly took it upon themselves to publicly crucify him, rendering my two cents a bit redundant.
Recently, however, with Borders going out of business and selling books at steep discounts, I came across Krakauer’s 70-page exposé Three Cups of Deceit, and decided to give it a read. For those who have seen the 60 Minutes report, the gist of the accusations come as no surprise. Krakauer arranges the book into three sections which are, broadly speaking, the three problems he sees with Mortenson and Three Cups. First, the problem of fabricated stories presented as fact. Second, the problem of lack of financial accountability. And third, the problem of lackluster results in the places where Mortenson claims success.
The accusations do seem fairly damning, and I don’t think that Mortenson’s or CAI’s responses sufficiently defuse them. So in the midst of profound disappointment and disillusionment it’s only natural to want to demonize the man, to throw out your copy of Three Cups, and to distance yourself by pretending you never liked it in the first place and would never fall for such deception. But I think there are at least three big lessons we can all learn from this.
First, it is good to be reminded of the need for organizations and their leaders to be held accountable. Charity Navigator is one of the leading nonprofit watchdogs, and while it isn’t perfect (it failed to flag CAI’s shady accounting ahead of time), it has been evolving to become a more accurate measure of financial accountability and program effectiveness. There are good places to put your money to use for the common good, so please resist the two extremes: either donating on a whim just because someone asked you to, or refusing to donate at all because scandals like this exist.
Second, it is good to be reminded of the seduction of power and money, to which none of us are immune. Mortenson discovered a formula for pulling on people’s heartstrings, for enlarging his personal bank account, and yes, for helping a lot of people at the same time. Mixed motives are hardly foreign to any of us, so while it does seem that Mortenson has engaged in manipulative, greedy, and deceptive behavior and has taken advantage of people’s generosity and goodwill in the process, we simply cannot say that we’d be immune to these temptations were we in his shoes.
Third, and finally, it is good to be reminded that we live in a messy world full of complicated people and conflicting reports, and that a nuanced perspective is almost always helpful. Krakauer himself is quick to affirm the good that Mortenson has done — and the good he has done is considerable — and that is perhaps what I most appreciate about the book. While obviously first and foremost an exposé, Three Cups of Deceit demonstrates that for those confident in the facts, we can afford to be honest about the good, the bad and the ugly. And that’s what separates Krakauer, a true journalist, from so many bandwagon bloggers: in lambasting a man who misled people through looseness of facts, it’s all too easy to disqualify our critiques by doing the same.