Teachers shocked over “Three Cups” controversy

Craig Couden, Co-Editor-in-Chief

On April 13, SRJC instructor Ellen Shick accompanied students from her college skills classes to the Marin Civic Center to hear author Greg Mortenson speak about his experiences building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan and how one man with passion and drive can change the world. Shick’s class had studied Mortenson’s book “Three Cups of Tea” for six weeks.

“We were so touched by him because this is in his heart to do this work,” said Shick, who has used the book three times in past semesters. “His message is really strong. It’s a counter message to everything else we get in the media. It’s an important message.”

The memoir, co-authored by David Oliver Relin, recounts Mortenson’s humanitarian awakening after failing to summit K2 and subsequently receiving aid from local villagers. Mortenson makes the decision to help them build a desperately needed school. For many the message is inspiring, and donors include President Barack Obama, who gave a portion of his Nobel Prize winnings to the Mortenson’s non-profit, the Central Asia Institute.

Four days after Shick and her students saw Mortenson, CBS’s “60 Minutes” ran an expose claiming that many of the most touching and compelling accounts in “Three Cups” were embellished or entirely fabricated, and that donor funds were put to questionable use by Mortenson’s non-profit.

Shick and her students discussed the piece the next day in class and reactions ran from claims of bias at CBS to anger and mistrust directed at Mortenson.

“It was shocking,” Shick said. “We had spent six or seven weeks on this book we spent a long time on it and did a lot of writing about it. It was devastating for us. We processed it together.”

The “60 Minutes” piece featured accusations of fabrication and mishandled funds from journalist Jon Krakauer, author of “Into Thin Air” and “Into the Wild” and an early backer of Mortenson. Krakauer and CBS spent six months investigating 30 schools out of the 141 that Mortenson claimed as successes and found that, while some were flourishing, more than half were empty, unsupported or built by someone else.

The pieced claimed that Mortenson’s visit to the village of Korph that inspired him to begin building schools happened a full year after the book says it does. “60 Minutes” also questioned Mortenson’s claim that he was abducted and held by the Taliban. The program found four alleged Taliban members whom Mortenson identified in photographs, some holding rifles. They claimed they were protecting Mortenson, and “60 Minutes” showed a photo in which Mortenson held the gun. According to “60 Minutes” one of the men, Mansur Khan Mahsud, is a respected member of a think tank in Islamabad and has written articles published in the U.S.

In an April 16 response to “60 Minutes,” the CAI confirmed that it funds Mortenson’s travel and expenses for speaking engagements and promotional engagements for his books at large cost, but Mortenson keeps the speaking fees and book royalties. CAI claims that Mortenson donates much of that money back to the organization and said that Mortenson’s promotion is key to the organization.

“CAI benefits directly from Greg’s books, which are integral to accomplishing our mission. They are the primary means of raising awareness among Americans and the international community, providing readers with insight into the Institute’s mission and purpose,” the CAI said.

Though Mortenson initially refused to speak to “60 Minutes,” both he and CAI issued responses both to the CBS’s initial questions and upholding the truthfulness of the book and the validity of their spending practices.

“I stand by the information conveyed in my book, and by the value of CAI’s work in empowering local communities to build and operate schools that have educated more than 60,000 students,” Mortensen said in a statement released April 15.

The CAI also released a more strongly worded statement to the same affect a week after the program aired. “The contents of Greg Mortenson’s books “Three Cups of Tea” and “Stones Into Schools” are based on events that actually happened…Media allegations that Greg did not visit Korphe in 1993 are false; he first visited Korphe in September 1993 after failing to reach the summit of K2 and he later built a school there. And Greg was, in fact, detained and held against his will in 1996, with his passport and money confiscated, although his captors did treat him well, as he accurately described in his book.”

CAI has also released tax returns for the past 14 years and a 2009 audit online at its website in an effort to promote transparency.

Media Studies Professor Tony Kashani wasn’t surprised that “Three Cups of Tea” has come under scrutiny. His gut reaction after seeing the book on shelves was skepticism. “Here we go again, Azar Naficy’s ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ all over again,” Kashani said. “Let’s embellish some stories about a third world country and cash in on our manufactured benevolence.”

Kashani, who described “60 Minutes” as one of the best investigative journalism programs on television, sees the actions of the CAI as exploiting the trust of donors and crossing moral boundaries.

SRJC and SSU instructor JoAnn Vrilakas was a former donor and taught the book at the end of her cultural anthropology classes as a hopeful endnote after the depressing nature of the other texts on globalization that she assigned. However she wouldn’t feel comfortable using the book again until the controversy clears up.

“For me, his stories would also have to be true, since he presented them as true,” Vrilakas said. “I wouldn’t want to have to assign a book to a student and say this part’s true and this part is not.”

However, Vrilakas doesn’t dismiss the idea that Mortenson has made a difference: “Part of me feels like he’s probably done more good than harm in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but I don’t know yet. I hope that’s true; for him and all those children over there, I hope that’s true.”

Whatever Mortenson’s intentions, the full damage to his reputation and that of the CAI in unclear.

“He’s not Bernie Madoff,” Krakauer said to “60 Minutes.” “He has done a lot of good. He has helped thousands of school kids in Pakistan and Afghanistan….He has become perhaps the world’s most effective spokesperson for girls’ education in developing countries. And he deserves credit for that…Nevertheless, he is now threatening to bring it all down, to destroy all of it by this fraud and by these lies.”

Following the “60 Minutes” piece, Krakauer released the book “Three Cups of Deceit” April 20, which goes further into the claims made on the program. All proceeds from the book will go to the “Stop Girl Trafficking” project at the American Himalayan Foundation.

Shick won’t teach the book while the controversy lingers and won’t introduce it to students without knowing the facts behind it. However, she still believes in Mortenson’s message, even though the actions of the man behind it look questionable.

“What my students have taken from [the book] is the power of one individual, so a lot of them have commented that they are looking at their lives now saying ‘what can I do?’ and that they’ve been inspired by Greg even after this came out,” Shick said.