In his first interview since “60 Minutes” aired a 2011 exposé alleging fabrication in “Three Cups of Tea,” author Greg Mortenson appeared on NBC’s "Today Show" Tuesday admitting that he ignored concerns about fraud in his bestselling memoir and thanking the investigators who brought the allegations to light.
Since the 2011 investigation, Mortenson has admitted that events in the book did not occur in the sequence presented. In 2012, he was also ordered to return $1 million to the charity he created as part of a settlement over the mishandling of funds.
“It still has puzzled me and why there wasn’t, at some point, in your mind, an alarm that went off and said, ‘This isn’t right in some way,'” Tom Brokaw said in the interview.
“There were alarms, Tom,” Mortenson said. “I didn’t listen to them. I was willing to basically kill myself to raise money and help the projects.”
In “Three Cups of Tea,” Mortenson, with co-author David Oliver Relin, recounted his failed attempt to climb K2, the world’s second-tallest mountain in the Himalayas. When he stumbled, sick and exhausted, into the Pakistani village of Korphe and was nursed back to health, he vowed to repay the good deed by building a school. That led to the foundation of an ambitious nonprofit organization, the Central Asia Institute, and a follow-up memoir in 2009, “Stones Into Schools."
But in 2011, friend and fellow adventurer and author Jon Krakauer tipped CBS into investigating Mortenson’s book and charity. The investigation found key parts of the book were inaccurate and that charity funds were being misspent. CBS found that “nearly 30 of the 54 schools Mortenson’s charity built in Afghanistan … were empty, built by someone else, or not receiving support,” according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
The revelations sent Mortenson’s book, charity, and life into a tailspin. His books dropped off bestseller lists, contributions to his charity were off by 80 percent or more, and Mortenson himself experienced severe stress and health problems. Co-author Relin committed suicide in November 2012.
But in the NBC interview, Mortenson said he owes a debt or gratitude to those who uncovered the issues.
“In maybe a strange, ironic way, I’d like to thank CBS and Jon Krakauer because, had they not brought these issues up, we could have gotten into more serious problems,” Mortenson said.
He also said that he continues to stand by the stories outlined in the book.
“I stand by the stories. The stories happened, but … not in the sequence or the timing,” Mortenson told Brokaw.
“What I regret is that we were under tremendous pressure to bring about a million words down to 300,000 words.”
As for the mishandling of large amounts of money – an investigation by the Montana attorney general’s office found that the Central Asia Institute spent $4.9 million advertising Mortenson’s books and $4 million buying copies of them to give away at publicity events, as well as illicit spending of charity funds on speaking fees to Mortenson, charter flights for family vacations, and clothing – Mortenson accepted blame, if obliquely.
“I always have operated from my heart. I'm not really a head person. And I really didn't factor in the very important things of accountability, transparency,” Mortenson told Brokaw.
Is America ready to give Mortenson a second chance?
Brokaw seems to think so.
"I think I speak for a lot of people when I say America is a country of second chances, if people learn from the first experience,” he said.
Mortenson appeared contrite: "I've been given the privilege to come back again and be committed to this and do it in a more humble and – understanding way. I'm gonna try as hard as I can never to make the same mistakes again."
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.