Greg Mortenson: when 'do gooders' become celebrities

The truth is still being sifted about Greg Mortenson, best-selling author and philanthropist. But maybe an early warning came when the story became all about him.

U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/Department of Defense/AP/File
In this July 2009 photo, “Three Cups of Tea” co-author Greg Mortenson shows the locations of future village schools to U.S. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the opening of Pushghar Village Girls School 60 miles north of Kabul in Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan.

The Greg Mortenson story continues to play out as a slow motion tragedy.

The "60 Minutes" report (see video here) alleging fabrications in his book "Three Cups of Tea" itself is now receiving scrutiny. In a series of interviews with the editorial director of Outside magazine, Alex Heard, Mortenson conceded he had made mistakes both in "Three Cups of Tea," and in the way he has managed his nonprofit group, the Central Asia Institute (CAI). But he also disputes the most serious allegations against him.

A prominent voice in the "60 Minutes" piece, journalist Jon Krakauer, has written his own scathing critique of Mr. Mortenson's conduct in an online article called "Three Cups of Deceit" (payment required). Mr. Krakauer claims Mortenson, who has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, is "not what he appears to be" and that Mortenson "has not only fabricated substantial parts of his bestselling books Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools but has also misused millions of dollars donated by unsuspecting admirers...."

But in a response in Outside magazine, Mortenson's climbing partner Scott Darsney says both the "60 Minutes" and Krakauer reports are distorted – at least in part. “If Jon Krakauer and some of Greg's detractors had taken the time to have three or more cups of tea with Greg and others – instead of one cup of tea with a select few who would discredit him – they would have found some minor problems and transgressions," Mr. Darsney says. "But to the extent to call it all 'lies' and 'fraud'? No way.”

One important charge against Mortenson is that he did not visit the village of Korphe at the time he says he did. According to Mortenson's book, the visit provided a seminal moment, putting him on the path to building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Darsney says Mortenson's account rings true: “[O]n our way out, Greg got lost ... somewhere between the Biafo glacier region and Askole. About half a day later, Greg finally showed up in Askole saying he'd made a major wrong turn. He'd ended up in a village on the wrong side of the Braldu River. It's certainly plausible that this was Korphe.”

In an insightful opinion piece in the Monitor, Courtney E. Martin and John Cary ask whether a new culture of "do gooder celebrities" has emerged. "In this culture of 24/7 news, swollen with schadenfreude, Mortenson appears on the brink of becoming another tragic figure – the most recent saint to fall from his pedestal of six-figure book contracts, sold-out speaking engagements, and CAI’s millions in annual donations," they write.

Mortenson may have been overwhelmed by his sudden celebrity, lacking the tools "pragmatically or ethically – to handle it," they say. "The scale was too big; the speed was too fast."

More and more organizations, including the news media, are putting a spotlight on individuals doing good works. From CNN "Heroes" to the TED prizes to appearances on TV's "Oprah" or "Charlie Rose" the news media find readers and viewers love to learn about and celebrate individuals who make exceptional contributions. (The Monitor has it's own weekly "people making a difference" feature.)

But should the spotlight be on the individuals – or the work they accomplish? Does reading about people going the extra mile to help others inspire us – or let us off the hook, relieved that someone else is making the effort for us?

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