Greg Mortenson and Attack Media

Sometimes procrastination is a good thing. (This advice doesn’t apply to statistics assignments, though.) I had finished reading the two books about Mr. Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, back in January. I was inspired by what appeared to be a fantastic tale of optimism and hope. But now, is it just fantastic?

In April, 60 Minutes ran an investigative pieces. Led by author Jon Krakauer, a former supported turned jilted cynic, there’s now an Amazon e-book on the subject. It questions the Korphe story, 1996 Waziristan visit, number of successful projects, and proportion of funds spent on travel and appearances.

Online, you’ll find defenders, sort-of defenders, and attackers. If you asked me – and since it’s my blog I’ll assume you do, thanks for asking – the problems are due to administrative incompetence. If Mr. Mortenson is gaining personal wealth, it’s hard to find. He lives in Bozeman, Montana. He used to be a healthy mountain climber, but now has gained substantial weight and had to have open heart surgery. That doesn’t sound like personal profit, such as a Rolls-Royce Phantom or a G6.

Mortenson has admitted mistakes, in this magazine interview. The visits to Korphe and some other trips were compressed for literary impact. He still believes he was detained in Waziristan, since his passport was taken. He admits that there has been some fraud in Asia. And he notes the large amount of money spent on speaking tours, defending it as outreach. This interview, which has gotten very little attention, appears to be the response of a rightly guided yet flawed individual. The problems exist and are fixable. It’s a sizable failure of infrastructure, similar to family run businesses. Visionaries aren’t usually accountants. A Toronto Sun opinion piece summarized it well: “In the end, it may turn out Greg Mortenson shares the same shades of grey as the rest of us (and/or needs a bigger and better board of directors to help manage his charity).”

The other interesting point is the role of the journalist. Mr. Krakauer wrote an earlier book about mountain climbing, in which he voted not to rescue two fellow climbers. They died. Krakauer showed the survivor mentality, that there are places where morality doesn’t apply. Above 8000 meters was like a Hobbesian state – Objectivist or Corporate Capitalist. In writing this article, instead of trying to correct the problems through the board, Krakauer was Hobbesian again. While it’s good for his reputation and TV ratings, it’s bad for the CAI mission and central Asia overall.

Journalism is about the attack now, whatever the consequences. People of my generation have grown up idolizing Woodward and Bernstein, that only scandal publication will effect change. I hear this from professors, that we need to speak Truth to Power. Umm … we ARE power. Right? Instead of building coalitions and structures, we get tales like this, and the Rolling Stone article on General McChrystal that led to his dismissal. The magazine says it “changed history”. That may be true, but I wouldn’t call it a good change, one that should be accompanied with pride.

The sad part of this tale – and my book reviews earning a 2 (not 4) out of 5 – is that the CAI had a chance to deserve an honest heroic story. The problems were correctable. Now, they’re likely irreparable, without remorse. As the support of female education wanes, I hope the mission can survive – but I’m too much a product of the cynical generation to have that much hope.

About Adam

My quest is a world where calling someone "virtuous like a fairy tale hero" is routine, not fantastic or ironic. My vocation is the teaching and learning of statistics. My dream is a long happy life with a wonderful wife and kids. Who knows if any will become true? More information is at my homepage on the twelvefruits network:
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One Response to Greg Mortenson and Attack Media

  1. Mike Hrnicek says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful review Adam. I have been conflicted about this. On one hand, I sympathize with Mortenson being human. I also particularly appreciate your comments regarding attack media and the General McChrystal anectdote. On the other hand, it was astounding to think about the volume coming into his organization and the fact that there has been only 1 external audit over 10 years. By the way, I am someone who was particularly inspired by “Three Cups of Tea”.

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