At 219 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea has been a publishing blockbuster, a gripping tale of survival, spiritual renewal and one man's crusade to improve the lives of children in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But in the time it took for a segment on CBS News' 60 Minutes to run its course, Mortenson's carefully crafted image as a thoughtful writer and altruistic humanitarian has become part of the rubble of the villages he claims to have saved.
Now Mortenson and the nonprofit Central Asia Institute he founded are fending off accusations that many of the facts offered up by the author in Three Cups of Tea were either manufactured or highly dramatized to embellish Mortenson's philanthropic bona fides. Noted author Jon Krakauer has accused his former friend of outright lies in Mortenson's telling of stumbling into a remote Pakistani village and finding his calling to begin building a series of schools for mostly young girls.
The 60 Minutes profile suggested that the Central Asia Institute, which reportedly has received $60 million in donations, has been less than diligent in managing its finances. It spent $1.3 million in 2009 to pay for Mortenson's travel expenses, including the use of private jets. Charity has its perks.
Publishers and the public need to know an author's memoir is an intellectually honest, factual literary effort. When James Frey's memoir A Million Little Pieces was proven to be more a work of fiction than a factual examination of his life, the only real damage done was to the author's reputation for honesty. But Mortenson's exposure has considerably wider effects.
Three Cups of Tea became Pentagon required reading for military personnel serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. The book also served as the launching pad for Mortenson's institute and a multimillion-dollar empire built on his appearances and speaking fees.
Mortenson owes his readers, his publisher and most importantly himself a candid explanation of Three Cups of Tea's veracity. Instead, the author, who once pursued the limelight, has had precious little to say. The author's themes of reaching out to the Muslim world and emphasizing education still resonate. But that uplifting message has been undercut by apparent embellishments in the bestselling book. Getting the facts right remains essential to championing a worthy cause.