“Three Cups of Tea” Author Sees Civil Suit Dismissed

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April 30, 2012; Source: Bloomberg Businessweek (AP)

There is a new chapter in the long, strange story of Greg Mortenson, founder and leader of the Central Asia Institute (CAI). The humanitarian Mortenson is the author of two books, Three Cups of Tea (four million copies sold) and Stones into Schools, which have been widely criticized as including fabrications, while revelations have surfaced about how much CAI was spending on promoting Mortenson and his books and paying for Mortenson’s personal expenses.

Four people decided to sue Mortenson and his publisher, claiming that they were cheated out of the $15 they paid for the books because the books were labeled as nonfiction but should have been labeled as fiction. They had asked a federal district court to refund all of the money that purchasers paid for the book. They charged, in fact, that Mortenson, his co-author David Oliver Relin, his publisher (Penguin), and the Central Asia Institute “were involved in a fraud and racketeering conspiracy to build Mortenson into a false hero to sell books and raise money for CAI, the charity Mortenson co-founded,” according to the Associated Press.

The AP article says that the judge dismissed the case, calling the allegations that Mortenson and the publisher lied “flimsy” and “speculative,” calling the racketeering allegations “fraught with shortcomings,” and referring to the claims that the plaintiffs bought the books because they were supposed to be factual “overly broad.”

Back on the job at CAI, Mortenson e-mailed AP while on a trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan, making his first public statement in a year to address the challenges he’s faced with the investigations and media reports: “At times, facing so much was overwhelming and devastating, however, my attorneys always offered steadfast encouragement to stay positive and keep the high ground, even when subjected to false allegations, vicious name-calling and slander,” he wrote. Mortenson also noted that the federal court decision “upholds and confirms my belief and faith that our American legal and judicial system is honorable and fair.”

In the wake of this decision combined with the Montana AG’s investigation that NPQ recently noted, have NPQ Newswire readers’ thoughts about Mortenson changed or not?—Rick Cohen

  • Guy Montag

    No, my thoughts about Mortenson have not changed (I’m indifferent to him & CAI); see Daniel Glick’s quotes below. However, my thoughts about Jon Krakauer have worsened (I had a bad experience with giving him the material he used to extensively revise his Pat Tillman book “Where Men Win Glory”).

    Last year, CBS’s “60 Minutes” aired their expose of Greg Mortenson (best-selling author of “Three Cups of Tea”). Jon Krakauer (best-selling author of “Into Thin Air”) said that Mortenson tells a “beautiful story, and it’s a lie” and “uses Central Asia Institute (CAI) as his private ATM machine.” In response, Daniel Glick wrote: “I believe in the importance of journalism to ferret out charlatans, expose financial fraud, and hold people and institutions accountable. That said, it’s hard to believe why “60 Minutes” decided that Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute qualified on any of those fronts – much less why Jon Krakauer joined in this recent barrage.”

    Daniel Glick’s opinion appears to be justified by the Montana Attorney General’s investigation that “did not reveal evidence of conduct that would sufficiently constitute the basis for any criminal investigation.” And on Monday, a federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit against Greg Mortenson, calling it “flimsy and speculative.”

    However, last years’ expose resulted in a dramatic drop in Mortenson’s book sales and donations to CAI. So, it’s rather ironic that after his break with Mortenson in 2004, Krakauer had written: “I still believe in CAI’s mission … I don’t want to make any public statements that would have a negative impact on Greg’s work….” So then, seven years later, what prompted Jon Krakauer to speak out on “60 Minutes” and write his e-book “Three Cups of Deceit”?

    Well, Jon Krakauer was not just a “jilted crank” or “crusading do-gooder” outraged by literary deceit and lax accounting practices. It appears that Krakauer’s e-book was also a publicity stunt whose publication was timed with the “60 Minutes” broadcast (largely based on research spoon-fed to them by Krakauer) to create the “buzz” to raise the investment capital needed to launch his old friend (former “Outside” Editor) Mark Bryant’s start-up of Byliner [for details see the chapter “With Three Cups of Luck?” in the April 2011 Krakauer post at the feralfirefighter blog].

    Overall, I believe Daniel Glick has offered the most balanced commentary on this affair: “[‘60 Minutes’ and Jon Krakauer’s assault was overkill] lacking in basic elements of fairness, balance, perspective, insight and context. … Mortenson is neither a saint nor a charlatan; Krakauer is not either a jilted crank or a crusading do-gooder. There are nuances, debatable “facts” and conflicting motivations in almost every situation, messy and at times seemingly irreconcilable. This is no exception.”

    Once Mortenson comes out of seclusion, he certainly needs to answer questions about his literary and financial practices. But, I believe Krakauer also needs to answer questions about how and why he “got onto the Mortenson story” (but, just like Mortenson, Krakauer isn’t talking to the press).
    . . .

    “It’s [“Into Thin Air”] there in print forever. It’s part of history. People should be above taking someone else down. And for what? For money and egos people are willing to destroy other people to further their careers.”

    — David Breashears, (“Improper Bostonian”, Sept 24, 1997)

  • Kimball Leighton

    You ask a valid question but it’s based on absurdly little and biased information that you provide to, it appears, elicit an uninformed and misinformed negative response. Consider providing an overview of CAI’s accomplishments and/or its website (www.ikat.org) so that readers can make informed decisions. And while you’re at it you may want to get reacquainted with the word “alleged” as in “alleged fabrications.” The Associated Press Stylebook is a good source, and it has an entire section on avoiding libel.

    I rarely respond to Web screeds, but you’re representing NPR here. Mortenson has been keelhauled in the great American media tradition. The courts and authorities have ruled on the matter and passed sentence. It will speak to the content of our character as a society whether or not we let him get on with his humanitarian work. To that end, NPR’s responsibility to present his (and every) story in an unbiased manner is on point.