April 20, 2011

Greg Mortenson's insane defense, a summary


Photo by Dan Winters

Embattled author Greg Mortenson has given just two interviews since 60 Minutes and Jon Krakauer attacked the finances of his Central Asia Institute charity and his two wildly popular non-fiction books. (See the earlier MobyLives reports here and here.) In a long interview with Outside magazine and in a shorter conversation with his hometown Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Mortenson defends himself against the allegations and works to spin the negative press as well as he can, which is not well at all. A  few related documents posted on the CAI website and a memo to the media (mentioned here by the Times) round out his defense.

What’s the substance of this defense? Very little—and what’s on offer is really just the enumeration of some wildly inconsistent arguments. He says he stands by the book. But he’s also already conceded that key passages in the book are based on conflated events. And he hasn’t touched the broader allegations made by Krakauer. (What Krakauer published here adds much to what was aired during the 60 Minutes report and goes almost entirely unaddressed.) As one commenter on the Outside interviews notes, it’s not that Mortenson is “criminal,” it’s that he “was and is completely out of his depth of competency.”


A summary of Mortenson‘s defense.

The co-author of my bestselling memoir—David Oliver Relin—wrote the book… and he’s not a good writer: “David insisted on writing the book in third person, which is really awkward.” (Outside)

He’s also the one that added the lies: “He would synthesize [three trips] into one trip. I would squawk about it and be told that it would all work out.” (Outside)

It’s hard to tell the truth in the language that these particular Pakistanis use: “It is important to know that Balti people have a completely different notion about time. Even the Balti language—an archaic dialect of Tibetan—has only a vague concept of tenses and time. For example, ‘now’ can mean immediately or sometime over the course of a whole long season. The concept of past and future is rarely of concern. Often tenses are left out of discussion, although everyone knows what is implied. And if a person is a day or week late or early it doesn’t matter. The Balti consider the western notion of time quite amusing.” (Mortensen response to 60 Minutes questions)

I actually did lie about what happened in the village of Korphe and when exactly it happened: Outside Magazine: “You entered the village in September 1993, but you went back a year later, not a few days later, and talked about the school?” Mortensen: “That’s correct.”

I know I said I was kidnapped by the Taliban, but who knows? “All I know is that I was in the area where the Taliban had originated. They didn’t call themselves ‘Taliban,’ and maybe they were and maybe they weren’t.” (Outside)

I didn’t talk to 60 Minutes because I thought their reporter was a terrorist: “He had a big, brown trench coat on, on a hot Atlanta day. When I see a big coat on a hot day, I think about Pakistan and I think ‘suicide bomber.'” (Outside)

The guy I hired to  build schools for me was a scam artist: “In Africa and Asia, there’s something called a confidence trick. Have you heard the term? The first two, three, four years, you do well and you’re reliable and accountable. Then you try some grafting and see what the response is. Maybe it’s nothing, or it might be hard. Then you put in the real whammy and take people to the cleaners. What this man did to me was like the ultimate confidence trick.” (Outside)

I have a hole in my heart: “I came home and was diagnosed with a hole in my heart that was shunting blood, causing my low saturations. Tomorrow, I will have further tests and then a heart surgical procedure this week to fix the hole.” (Mortenson statement about 60 Minutes)

Don’t worry about the report, it’s just ratings and prize chasing: “I hope these allegations and attacks, the people doing these things, know this could be devastating for tens of thousands of girls, for the sake of Nielsen ratings and Emmys.” (The Bozeman Daily Chronicle)

The attacks on Three Cups of Tea are led by the New York press, which is not to be trusted: “Don’t let NYC sensational TV mess with Montana, or the tens of thousands of girls and boys we empower through education, our supporters will rally!” (Mortensen memo to media outlets)

Kelly Burdick is the executive editor of Melville House.