28 August 2011


From Jon Krakauer's Three Cups of Deceit (Anchor, 2011), eviscerating claims by Greg Mortenson of 'Three Cups Of Tea' fame -
Mortenson didn't really stumble into Korphe after taking a wrong turn on his way down from K2. He wasn't lovingly nursed back to health in the home of Haji Ali. He set no villagers' broken bones. On that crisp September morning, shortly before returning to America, Mortenson did not put his hands on Haji Ali's shoulders and promise to build a school. In fact, Mortenson would not even make the acquaintance of Haji Ali, or anyone else in Korphe, until more than a year later, in October 1994, under entirely different circumstances.

The first eight chapters of Three Cups of Tea are an intricately wrought work of fiction presented as fact. And by no means was this an isolated act of deceit. It turns out that Mortenson's books and public statements are permeated with falsehoods. The image of Mortenson that has been created for public consumption is an artifact born of fantasy, audacity and an apparently insatiable hunger for esteem. Mortenson has lied about noble deeds he has done, the risks he has taken, the people he has met, the number of schools he has built. Three Cups of Tea has much in common with A Million Little Pieces, the infamous autobiography by James Frey that was exposed as a sham. But Frey, unlike Mortenson, didn't use his phony memoirs to solicit tens of millions of dollars in donations from unsuspecting readers, myself included. Moreover, Mortenson's charity, the Central Asia Institute, has issued fraudulent financial statements, and he has misused millions of dollars donated by schoolchildren and other trusting devotees. "Greg", says a former treasurer of the organisation's board of directors, "regards CAI as his personal ATM".
Associated Press reported yesterday that Mortenson's attorneys John Kauffman and Kevin Maclay have
asked a U.S. district judge in Missoula to reject certifying three plaintiffs' $5 million class-action lawsuit against Mortenson over what the plaintiffs say are false depictions of Mortenson's humanitarian work in Central Asia.

Former teacher Deborah Netter of Illinois and Montana residents Michele Reinhart and Dan Donovan claim that Mortenson duped 4 million people into buying his books by portraying events in them as true when they weren't, all for the purpose of making Mortenson a hero and to raise money.

The plaintiffs are asking Judge Donald Molloy to certify their class-action lawsuit and place all the money from Mortenson book purchases, which they estimate to be more than $5 million, into a trust to be used for humanitarian purposes.

The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit after published reports this spring by 60 Minutes and author Jon Krakauer alleged that Mortenson lied in the books about how he became involved in building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan and other events depicted as true.

The reports also questioned whether Mortenson financially benefited from his charity, Central Asia Institute, and whether CAI built the number of schools it claimed. ...

In their response filed Friday with the US District Court in Missoula, Kauffman and Maclay never explicitly say that all the events in Mortenson wrote about in the books are true

They say the lawsuit should be thrown out because the plaintiffs can't identify any false statements or misrepresentations in his books.

Also, the plaintiffs can't say that all 4 million people bought the books for the same reason, something they need to prove to turn their claim into a class-action lawsuit, Mortenson's attorneys argue. Why someone buys a book is different from person to person, and may not be the same reason why the plaintiffs bought theirs, they said.

"They cannot demonstrate that an identifiable group of people has experienced any wrongdoing, let alone the same wrongdoing," the document says.
Irrespective of whether purchasers of Mortenson's book have legal standing, Krakauer's expose is reminiscent of a succession of debunkings of humbug. I'm reminded of The Register's expose of Jeffrey Papows, who exited from IBM after the Wall Street Journal questioned statements in his CV. As I've noted elsewhere in this blog, IBM initially dismissed the questioning as nothing but "rumors strung together by commentary".

Not so, said The Register in its classic smack-down, claiming that -
So he's not an orphan, his parents are alive and well. He wasn't a Marine Corps captain, he was a lieutenant. He didn't save a buddy by throwing a live grenade out of a trench. He didn't burst an eardrum when ejecting from a Phantom F4, which didn't crash, not killing his co-pilot. He's not a tae kwon do black belt, and he doesn't have a PhD from Pepperdine University.
Sad and unnecessary.

A follow up to this post is here.