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60 Minutes says legendary story in bestseller Three Cups of Tea is more like a fairytale



threecupsoftea-cover.jpgI first saw the kiddie book version of Greg Mortenson's best-selling book Three Cups of Tea at a First Amendment dinner held by journalists in Tampa; the next night, I sat down with my daughter to tell her the amazing story of an American adventurer who stopped in a village in Pakistan during a failed mountain climbing attempt and eventually built a school there.

So it was sobering and sad to see a 60 Minutes report Sunday alleging that much of that original story was untrue, possibly invented by Mortenson to burnish his legend and sell books.

The story, led by correspondent Steve Kroft, said that Mortenson seems to be using the charity created to build schools in Afghanistan as a personal ATM machine, using its funds to cover expenses stemming from his book tours and paid speeches, even though none of the revenue from those activities goes to the charity.

The New York Times tried getting some responses to the 60 Minutes story, first revealed in a press release Friday, with little luck. On Sunday afternoon, hours before their airtime, he did send some answers to the newsmagazine, which it posted here.

Mortenson wouldn't talk to Kroft, but he did speak with his local newspaper, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, for a story where an assistant managing editor was quoted defending him. In the story, the newspaper admits that the AME who was interviewed covers Mortenson for the paper and is paid by his charity to produce its annual Journey of Hope publication. At least, she wasn't involved in writing the actual story she was quoted in, though the entire setup placed the Bozeman newspapers standards in doubt.

greg-mortenson-and-friends.jpgKroft and his producers tracked down a man, supposedly among a group of Taliban who threatened him in a story from another book. The man said he and has family were guarding Mortenson while he was in the country.

The show also employed the kind of reporting resources rarely seen in network TV anymore -- traveling to Afghanistan to check on the status of several schools Mortenson said he built or helped, only to find some of them had not received aid in years, or were not even using the structures as schools.

It was an amazing report, capped by Mortenson's refusal to speak with Kroft when he approached him at a book signing in an Atlanta hotel.

Combined with a Dateline NBC report on the Mexican drug cartels, you had a pretty solid night of journalism on network TV. Too bad it's such a rare occurrence.

[Last modified: Thursday, April 21, 2011 6:05am]


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