OPINION: Does a mistake merit a trashed reputation?

My Side of the Street column by Elizabeth Alves from 2.20.13 edition

Several years ago, the Book of the Year at Humboldt State University and College of the Redwoods was “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. MYSIDEOFSTREETMortenson made appearances at both schools and delivered a talk to the public in Eureka, which was extremely popular. Many Humboldt residents greatly admired his work to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should tell you I hate being lied to. So if anyone was going to be turned off by allegations that Mortenson had lied and cheated his way to fame, it would be me. In April of 2011, writer Jon Krakauer appeared on “60 Minutes” to accuse Mortenson of lying in “Three Cups of ????????????????????Tea” and his second book, “Stones into Schools,” to sell more books, and of financial transgressions in connection with his charity, the Central Asia Institute.

His ebook, “Three Cups of Deceit,” was published online the next day. In it, he claimed to have traveled to Central Asia to fact check the books, and alleged to have “proved” some details were false. In particular, he stated, the incident in which Mortenson described being held briefly by a group of Taliban fighters couldn’t have happened, because Krakauer was told that the Taliban was not active in that place at that time.

11151351If he was as smart as he thinks he is, or as experienced as he claims to be, Krakauer would know that an American blowing into rural areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan to fact check anything is simply silly. Locals are not going to tell him what the Taliban may or may not have been up to; they’d have to be crazy to even admit they’ve heard of the group. It’s important to know that Krakauer built himself into a international brand by never having a good word to say about anyone.

It’s puzzling that he feels such a need to discredit this particular story. Mortenson was held for a short time by men he believed were with the Taliban, but who released him unharmed. If they had turned on him, would it have been any less serious if they were wannabes and weren’t sanctioned by the “real” Taliban?

The rural areas of Central Asia are controlled – to the extent they are controlled at all – by local tribal leaders. Some welcome the Taliban, others resist its influence, still others try to walk a careful line of Swiss-like neutrality. The whole situation is constantly shifting, and even Mortenson, who lives in it for months at a time, doesn’t claim to understand it.

With regard to the CAI, Krakauer alleged that the money collected wasn’t all spent on building schools, and that some of the schools mentioned in the second book weren’t ever built or weren’t being used as schools when he was there. Others, who spent more time in the area, refute the charges about the existence and use of the buildings.

Running a charity in the Third World is not the same as it is here. The government officials and materials supply middlemen don’t think of the additional money they extract as bribes or corruption; it’s how they feed their families. And they doesn’t issue receipts.

Not that Mortenson would have kept receipts. Anyone who has read either book, or heard him speak, knows he is massively disorganized. He openly admits he is chronically late and regularly misses flights.

So it’s no surprise that the bookkeeping and financial controls at CAI were a mess. The bad publicity created by Krakauer’s hit piece prompted an investigation in Montana, where the charity is based, which found the organization needed to be put on a businesslike footing. The group agreed to broaden the board, bring in experienced officers and reallocate some funds among accounts.

Despite Karkauer’s claims, there was no finding that Mortenson had personally profited from the CAI. Scott Darsney, who knows both men, wrote “(I)f Greg is misappropriating funds, then show me the luxury cars, fancy boats, and closets full of shoes. This is not a ‘ministry’ or a business gone corrupt.” Darsney also stated Krakauer had misrepresented some of his comments in an interview.

Darsney concluded that while there might have been some minor mistakes made, that claims of outright fraud and deception were completely off the mark. It felt to me as if, having found a few minor flaws, Krakauer felt compelled to try to convict Mortenson of much, much worse. I wasn’t alone in that.

Writing for The Daily Beast, Nick Summers noted that Krakauer was used to taking on big targets, such as the Mormon Church and the US Army. “Used to elephant hunting, Krakauer brings the same gun to the smaller task, obliterating Mortenson in the process.” Indeed, it seems as if this is really more about Krakauer than it is Mortenson.

Next time: Truth, lies, deception and bananas.

(Elizabeth Alves remains unconvinced that Mortenson deserved to attract Krakauer’s attention. Comments and suggestions are welcome, care of the Press or to mysidestreet@gmail.com) 


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