Greg Mortenson responds to "60 Minutes" with "I'm not a journalist"
His book, "Three Cups of Tea," about building schools for girls in Afghanistan, is still a New York Times bestseller in paperback. The uplifting tale of local tribesmen saving the errant mountaineer's life has been the toast of book clubs. And Mortenson has advised the U.S. military on how to win Afghan heats and minds.
Trouble is, his whole narrative may be based on a lie, at least according to people interviewed last night on "60 Minutes."
In Mortenson's telling, he staggered off a failed 1993 attempt to climb K2, the second highest mountain the world, and stumbled into an Afghan village named Korphe. The locals nursed him back to life. He launched the Central Asia Institute, and began building schools for girls in Afghanistan, as a way of saying thanks - and trying to do some good in the world. The book chronicles his work.
But "60 Minutes" alleges that Mortenson's story is full of holes; the mountaineering adventure and some of the schools are just made up, plain and simple.
Today, he told Outside Magazine that his ghost writer, David Oliver Relin, may have taken some poetic license with the facts.
"What happens then is, when you re-create the scenes, you have my recollections, the different memories of those involved, you have his writing, and sometimes things come out different. In order to be convenient, there were some omissions. If we included everything I did from 1993 to 2003 it would take three books to write it. So there were some omissions and compressions, and ... I don't know, what that's called?"
Maybe that's called, "Reshelf the book under 'fiction.'" Or maybe not.
Today, former Star Tribune reporter Sharon Schmickle writes in MinnPost about how close she came close to drinking Mortenson's tea. In a 2004 report, she wove the school-building story into a larger piece about how the Taliban fights efforts to educate girls. But she did it without talking about the mountaineering failure and Mortenson's experience in Korphe. He was "a Minnesota native who has spent the past decade creating schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan."
The Bozeman Chronicle in Montana, where Mortenson makes his U.S. home and is something of a local legend, has a different problem.
It turns out that Karin Ronnow, the paper's assistant managing editor, has been wearing two hats: Covering Mortenson and visiting some of his schools, while also producing CAI's annual report, "Journey of Hope."
The Chronicle took the trouble to mention that conflict of interest on Friday -- and then quoted her positive assessment of Mortenson anyway.
Ronnow, who did not participate in the writing or editing of this story, said what she has seen of Mortenson's character during that time does not match the accusations he now faces.
Whether you call this mess the result of creative editing or outright fabrication, the upshot is that a Ramsey High School graduate, born in St. Cloud to missionary parents, and who appears to have honestly tried to do good in the world is now under a cloud of suspicion.