2011 MountainFilm in Telluride: Panel weighs in on Mortenson saga

2011 MountainFilm in Telluride: Panel weighs in on Mortenson saga

Waiting for the Panel At a morning Coffee Talk held hosted by Mountainfilm in Telluride on May 28, a panel discussion examined "The Greg Mortenson Story." The questions on the table came down to this: Was a book a bank? Was Mortenson, a humanitarian hero, simply clueless about corporate accountability? Or did the man Nicholas Kristof described as "modest, passionate and utterly disorganized" simply succumb to the headiness of Warhol's 15 minutes? A foible but not a crime.


Mortenson ("Three Cups of Tea")  was in Telluride as a presenter for Mountainfilm 2010. I was in that Standing Room Only crowd at High Camp in Mountain Village where a genial, heartfelt Mortenson spoke to a rapt audience of supporters about his not-so-secret weapon in the War On Terrorism: books not bombs. He talked about his non-profit, the Central Asia Institute, dedicated to educating young people, especially girls, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, starting with the bricks and mortar. Mortenson encouraged the young people in the audience to give pennies if they could to help other young people half way across the world. Many raided their piggy banks. And the kids were not alone.

This year, Mortenson, a former mountaineer, was scheduled to return to Mountainfilm to judge an award that honors the memory of a local mountaineer, Charlie Fowler. When the bombs dropped –  exposés by "60 Minutes"  and Jon Krakauer, a former supporter, who famously described the saga as “the tragic tale of good intentions gone very wrong" – Mountainfilm's director David Holbrooke decided Mortenson could still come if he wished, but under certain conditions: he would agree to an interview with a credible reporter to set the record straight. Mortenson chose not to return to town, so it was left to Saturday's panel to fill in the blanks.

Mortenson is accused on many offenses, chief among them playing fast and loose with the "facts" in his best-selling book, among them how he got started building schools, exaggerating the number of schools his nonprofit, CAI, built and runs, lying about a dramatic kidnapping at the hands of the Taliban and using CAI as "his personal A.T.M." to advertise the book (to keep the title on the bestseller list) and for lavish travel.

The panel assembled by Holbrooke to address these allegations included Mountainfilm executive director Peter Kenworthy, anthropologist Ted Callahan (interviewed by "60 Minutes"), Outside editor Chris Keyes and National Geographic Explorer in Residence/author, Wade Davis.

The remix:

There was an Outside interview in which Mortenson threw his co-author, David Oliver Relin, under the bus. It was Relin, Mortenson said, who took literary license with the stories he threaded together. Attempts by Outside to fact check other allegations were answered in the form of FAQs. In a sympathetic but well-reasoned Op Ed piece featured in The New York Times, Kristof (also a former Mountainfilm guest) praised Mortenson's efforts expressed his concern that the "greatest loss" would not be the discredited hero and friend, but "countless children in Afghanistan who now won't get an education after all." Not so, explained Callahan, an anthropologist who has spent a great deal of time in that part of the world. Callahan explained that there are now about 7 million kids in Afghani schools, 43 percent of whom are girls, thanks in part to Mortenson's efforts, but also to a number of NGO's whose names we probably don't know. The fact that Mortenson got in bed with NGOs co-opted by warlords to build his schools is no biggie.That's life on the other side of the tracks. The fact that after he built the schools he pulled out, leaving villagers to negotiate with warlords for teachers and equipment is a horse of a different color. Callahan, who at one point consulted for Mortenson's non-profit, described how attempts to alert his boss about serious issues on the ground were met with silence on the other end of the line.

"Greg could have helped himself by admitting there were problems."

There may even be problems with Mortenson's basic premise that education is a universal panacea. Filmmaker Carol Black whose "Schooling the World" was screened last year at Mountainfilm was invited by the panel to elaborate. Paraphrasing Black, we are the "Whites in Shining Armor", who routinely impose our values on other cultures, including education. Our system of education is competitive. It ranks the kids, creating winners and losers. It also teaches kids to diss their nomadic roots and values creating fodder for industrial strife in cities where there are no jobs. But such issues could easily be the subject of a longer debate and do not directly address the allegations. Although Wade Davis said he became suspicious  of Mortenson from the get-go because of the simplicity of the logic of the story of "Three Cups of Tea," which essentially plots a straight line between outreach in the Muslim world in the form of building schools and staunching terrorism.

Wade's bottom line:

During the panel discussion, whenever the hot potato got passed to Wade Davis, the temperature in the crowded room went through the roof.

According to Wade, a Mountainfilm regular and polymath revered in these parts for his incisive logic and platinum tongue, Mortenson has not been able to keep a CFO at CAI, a nonprofit with about $60 million in the bank, a fact later confirmed by Telluride local Jim Lindheim, former CEO of Burston-Marsteller Europe, who told me: "It's been a revolving door at CAI." Wade's take: "The guy did not just space out on his checkbook."

Wade went on to draw a line in the sand between literary non-fiction such as his own "Serpent and the Rainbow," "breathless in its purple prose" in which his "facts" were clearly filtered through "the lens of my own personality", and outright deceit, which is "making things up." He pointed as an example to Mortenson's "creation myth" – the now famous story of Mortenson's visit to Korphe village after failing to reach the summit of K2 and a subsequent promise to build a school there out of gratitude to his hosts – and went on shooting holes in Mortenson's story.

Wade's conclusion: Mortenson was "unfaithful to the truth" and – cue the drumroll – his book and non-profit are part of "an elaborate Ponzi scheme."

What d
o I think? I seem to have misplaced my rose-colored glasses somewhere along the way, but I share real concerns with others who believe Mortenson's actions will leave Americans more disillusioned and   cynical than ever and, and, regardless of the outcome of this case, hurt the efforts of nonprofits and aid groups trying to do really good work. People who know it is not as easy as sitting down over a few cups of tea to get meaningful results.

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