Three Cups of Tea Author Greg Mortenson’s Authenticity Called into Question

By April 19, 2011Social Media

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.


  • Good post. I’m also disturbed by the way he uses cultural differences as a crutch. One of his defenses is that the people of that region of Pakistan/Afghanistan have a different notion of time. Even if it’s true, that has nothing to do with his lack of accountability for the millions of dollars that have been raised and spent for his cause.

  • Marijean says:

    That and that Taliban doesn’t necessarily mean Taliban. Convenient. I will be surprised if his reputation and his foundation survives this. We need to send Krakauer after BP.

  • Jane Kulow says:

    Well done, Marijean. Krakauer’s case is clear, while Mortenson prevaricates about the royalties (tossed out figure of $100k in Bozeman newspaper vs. estimates of millions) and — as you and Elizabeth mentioned: 1. throwing ghostwriter under the bus, and 2. blaming cultural differences — in the Outside piece just plain waffled.

  • Alice says:

    I call shenanigans: ghostwriter, or no, it is still Mortenson’s job to proofread. He is responsible for the outline, chronology, content, positioning, and accuracy. It’s ridiculous to blame the ghostwriter, no matter what. Besides, blaming the ghostwriter is another way of pointing the finger at himself: if, in some bizarro universe, it was the ghostwriter’s doing, then Mortenson is exposing himself as a crappy boss who didn’t do a good job vetting or managing the ghostwriter.

    In both cases, the responsibility lands with Mortenson (or More-Tension, as he’s striking me today). His lack of accountability in the interview suggests that it’s his normal operating mode and that he either doesn’t get the issue(s), or simply doesn’t care. Either way, I’m not a fan.

    On the other hand, as with Frey, is there a benefit to the book, anyway? I’m not sure it’s possible to measure the impact apart from anecdotes.

    Ugh. I just realized another reason this bugs me: it’s not as though there aren’t plenty of people doing really cool service work on this planet. Their stories deserve audiences, too. Maybe Mortenson can do penance by funding their efforts and helping them be seen. (I know, I know. It won’t happen anywhere beyond my pretty imagination. Still, I’m just sayin’…)

    Thanks for making the excellent points you did about the roll out effect to ghostwriters—who, by the way, need a better name.

    I’m not sure I can make a categorical statement about outsourcing social media. I suppose it depends upon how it’s done, and why. All representations have some kind of spin/bias/lens, and so “authenticity” is a tricky proposition across the board. An organization that’s really good at something, but stinks at communicating it might do well to hire others to do the communicating. in fact, they could, conceivably, be better expressed by someone who knows who to use various media to condense and present what is essential. Perhaps the make-or-break bit is the degree to which the organization and the contracted communications support remain in close contact—and how important they believe it is to do so.

  • This is sad because of the seeds of doubt that it plants in so many people with regard to nonprofits–the majority of which are doing amazing work with stretched resources.

    As a nonprofit consultant, I was concerned when I first read Mortensen’s book. Although it has been a while since I read it and the details are not totally clear to me now, I do recall a flag with finances. I believe he wanted to do good work but did not have the skills and experience to run a strong nonprofit organization. Having passion for a cause is the fire that gets a successful nonprofit started and keeps it stoked but an organization also needs structure, goals and accountability.