Author and nonprofit founder Greg Mortenson’s authenticity is being questioned by that grandaddy of all lie busters, 60 Minutes. What gives the truth-hunt even stronger legs is that Jon Krakauer, author and mountaineer, is leading the investigation. At first I thought, why does Krakauer have it out for Mortenson; it’s simple. Krakauer was one of the first donors, giving $75,000 to Mortenson’s foundation to build schools in Pakistan. Now questions are being raised not only about the authenticity of Mortenson’s stories (timelines, exaggerations, misleading statements and flat out lies are all alleged) but also the financial practices of Mortenson’s foundation.
The whole story is reminiscent of the scandal that blew up over James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces in 2006. Frey, whose work is now called a semi-fictional memoir, and who never had a nonprofit foundation or the kind of reputation Mortenson boasts, became a figurehead for the controversy and discussion of what constitutes a memoir — and at what point does a work need to be termed fiction?
What I find annoying about how this story is progressing is Mortenson’s initial response, published by Outside Magazine. Mortenson is very quickly calling out his ghostwriter; foisting the blame for inconsistencies in his own publication on the person who helped him write it and get it published.
As someone who works in public relations, who has ghostwritten many client pieces, relying on interviews and notes to pull together stories recounted by others, I’m concerned about what fallout this might cause for this ghostwriter and others. It’s a fair view that not everyone with a story is a writer and there’s nothing wrong with getting help to get a story well-written and more likely to be read.
Authenticity is a huge hot button for me; it’s particularly become important in the culture of social media in which communities do not stand for falsification of self, for “faking it” online or in print. We want the real deal, and when someone breaks that authenticity code, the ramifications can be devastating.
It is curious, then, that some companies are comfortable outsourcing their Twitter presence, the total of their online content, relying on an agency or other outside representative to ghostwrite their brand and beliefs. This, I think, is a risky business, not only because of what Mortenson’s writer is going through, but from Mortenson’s perspective, if he truly relinquished so much control of his own work to have published what amounts to fiction presented as truth, then he may very well have destroyed his career and his reputation.
It’s sad that someone who likely set out to do a lot of good may end up destroying what good he’s done.
Krakauer’s essay Three Cups of Deceit is available for free download today.