Reporter Speaks To Embattled 'Three Cups' Author

Greg Mortenson has been under fire since 60 Minutes challenged the accuracy of his best-selling book, Three Cups of Tea, and charged that he personally profited from funds he raised to support girls' education in South Asia. Outside magazine's Alex Heard spoke with Mortenson after the program aired.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

On Sunday, "60 Minutes" ran an expose that challenged the accuracy of Greg Mortenson's bestseller "Three Cups of Tea." It raised questions about the finances and management of the nonprofit he established to build schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Among other things, the piece charged that Mortenson personally profited from his nonprofit organization and fabricated the core story in his book. Mortenson spoke of those allegations to Alex Heard, the editorial director of Outside magazine, which had previously profiled the mountaineer-turned-crusader.

If you want to know more about this, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org.

Alex Heard is with us from a studio in Nashville. Thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. ALEX HEARD (Editorial Director, Outside Magazine): Thank you.

CONAN: And give us some clarity on the timing. We know Greg Mortenson is ill. I think he's in heart surgery.

Mr. HEARD: That's, I believe, correct. That's what I was told, anyway. And the timing and the interview as relative to the broadcast, you mean?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HEARD: Okay. The broadcast was Sunday night, of course. During the previous week, we got wind of the fact that a big journalistic charge was coming against Greg Mortenson on "60 Minutes," and then a follow-up article by Jon Krakauer. So I didn't see that or read the article before interviewing him, but it was clear that he wasn't talking to either of those sources. So I just - I think it was Wednesday of last week. I emailed him and I made a case for talking to me in a series of conversations that occurred over the weekend.

CONAN: So this was before the broadcast. He hadn't seen it either.

Mr. HEARD: Right. But both of us, just from our own reporting and sources, had a pretty good idea of what was coming. So I was able to ask him very specifically about the charges that did emerge in both sets of reporting.

CONAN: And in the interview, he blames any inaccuracies in "Three Cups of Tea" on his co-author and his publisher.

Mr. HEARD: Right. He claimed that he was naive about the publishing process and kind of got rolled a little bit by his writer - his co-writer and editor. And I don't really think that holds up. When you look at the story in "Three Cups of Tea," it's, you know, it's told with very novelistic detail, very moving details about many things that didn't happen. And it's hard to believe that someone could be rolled that much without being an active participant in the process.

CONAN: He says, I was very busy. I was in the field in Afghanistan, other places. They would call me up and read me chapters as they were finished. But I really didn't - I should have focused on it more.

Mr. HEARD: Right. And, you know, that's just - that's not a sufficient excuse. So I think it's clearly established, at this point, that there are significant fabrications in "Three Cups of Tea." Krakauer focused mainly on the story of his first entrance into the village of Korphe, and then it was later claim that he was - later in the book that he had been kidnapped and held for eight days by the Taliban.

CONAN: And in both cases, significant questions are raised.

Mr. HEARD: Right. I think the accounts of both those episodes in the book are severely in doubt, especially the first one. I mean, Greg admitted to me - the original story was that he came down off K2 after a climb in 1993, and wandered by accident into a village during his descent from the Baltoro Glacier. And it was in this village where he supposedly was nursed back to health over a period of several days, and then in a kind of an epiphany pledged to build a school there - which he subsequently came back and did.

Krakauer alleges that he never went to that village at all that year and didn't come back there until, like, one year later. What Greg told me is a third variation, which is that he did enter that village, but he was only there a few hours, and then came back one year later and had the moment and the epiphany about building a school.

CONAN: And that, over his objections, those visits were, for purposes of clarity, condensed into one.

Mr. HEARD: Right. And again, with the - it's not just the condensing, but it's a whole raft of details about little kids following him around, seeing them write with primitive learning instruments, being nursed and feasted. All these things couldn't have happened in that two-hour period that he discusses.

CONAN: The other story about being kidnapped by the Taliban. We've since seen interviews with some of those people responsible, allegedly responsible, for that, who said he was our guest. He wasn't our prisoner. We went to the soccer games.

Mr. HEARD: Right. And I don't know how that will shake out, but all I can tell you is what he told me is he stands by his story that he was detained by them. I don't know that that's true.

I think we'll see, because as you probably know, there's been a threat from one of the people who he said was a kidnapper, who's a fairly respected figure over there, I take it. He says he's going to sue for defamation of character now that he's aware of how this event was described in the book.

CONAN: And then, there is questions that were raised about the operations of the nonprofit foundation. And - well, again, he says he has founded any number of schools that have - to educate tens of thousands of girls who would otherwise have not gotten any education at all.

Mr. HEARD: Mm-hmm. Now, one - but one thing that needs to be said in balance, and there is a - this comes up in my interview on Outside's website, outsideonline.com, and also is raised by Nick Kristof in The Times - I believe it was today...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HEARD: ...that there's a little bit of a - there's a feeding frenzy going on, and people are - it's easy to forget that Greg Mortenson accomplished many tangible things. Many schools have been built, and many of them are functioning. That's what Kristof writes about, in particular. And a BBC report from earlier this week talked about the same thing. So people do need to keep in mind, it is not accurate to think of this man as a colossal fraud who didn't do anything.

And he's done a lot of good. And what's interesting to me is what's gonna come out of the end of this whole process. Will CAI and Greg Mortenson still be functioning entities with some much needed reforms about the way that the nonprofit is managed? Or are the charges going to get more and more serious to the point where we're looking at some kind of criminal charges against him? And I don't think we know.

CONAN: Yeah. CAI is the Central Asian Institute that he established. And the attorney general in Montana - it's centered in Bozeman, Montana -said he has to look into these allegations because charities have to do what they're supposed to do.

Mr. HEARD: Right. And we're about to move into the phase where, you know, the first phase of this dispute is a journalistic phase. Now we're going to move into the legal and government phase, where bodies with subpoena power or lawsuits will result in fact-finding that, you know, was not - is not yet possible. And so a lot of us are left still speculating about what exactly happened and where is this going.

CONAN: Let me ask you for a moment about the - getting back to the book just for a moment - the quality of the story in that. You're an editor at Outside magazine. You edit an awful lot of nonfiction. Some of those stories have been made into books yourself. Would - from what you now know of it and from what he has told you, would that kind of editing fly with you at Outside?

Mr. HEARD: No, of course not. We profiled Greg Mortenson in 2008 in an article written by an excellent journalist named Kevin Fedarko. And Kevin was with Greg during one of his trips in Asia. And everything he wrote about in that trip, he witnessed.

And there were some crazy events. The piece starts with Mortenson and an associate taking $100,000 in cash out of a bank and then rushing off to the airport - and these were teacher salaries. And it was like a Keystone Kops anecdote. And that if I read it, I might think this sounds too good to be true, but that happened exactly as depicted.

So we do our best to fact check, you know, every sentence in a story like that. Now, we might have missed something in that one because Greg - you know, Greg's story about the creation of the institute is in there, and we assumed that story from 1993 was true. But we - everything else was carefully, you know, vetted to the best of our ability.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. We're speaking with Alex Heard, editorial director at Outside magazine, who interviewed Greg Mortenson before the "60 Minutes" expose was broadcast, but after the outlines of the allegations were fairly clear to them.

800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Emily's on the line, calling from Yuba City in California.

EMILY (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call. With these nonprofits and the CIA - CAI and the story of Greg Mortenson, I'm a big fan of his, but I'm also a big fan of Mother Teresa. And she went through a very similar expose of her foundation, and she just dismantled the whole foundation, you know? She got so furious at people spending $3 a bottle of water for the meetings, that she decided that she'd enough. And she was - they called her the little general. And she would use every cent of her earnings, whatever was donated, you know, to help the poor.

And this is what I think the spirit of Greg Mortenson is all about, you know? He's doing something that other people can't comprehend him doing, you know? And it's just infuriates me to hear these high-minded, intellectual journalistic people, you know, cutting down somebody who's doing something that - you know, that your guest is saying, he has accomplished a lot. And it's just infuriates me that our society can't accept that somebody has an altruistic nature that would go around and do for another country what we can't seem to do for ourselves here in this country. And I don't understand why he's being attacked right now, at all. This is all events that happened years ago and - anyway, that's my comment. Thank you.

CONAN: All right, Emily. Thanks very much.

EMILY: ...answer off the air.

CONAN: Okay. Appreciate it. I think, yes, you hear the emotion and the passion, and yes, Greg Mortenson's foundation has done important things, but if it's accurate that only 41 percent of what they take in is spent on the schools, that's a problem.

Mr. HEARD: Right. And, you know, her comment's interesting because on our website, we're seeing the same kind of - there's real polarization around this. People - some people just can't stand the idea that he's even been questioned, and some people think he should be in jail already. And it's just stirring a lot of passions out there.

I would recommend anybody to read - that they should read - start by reading Jon Krakauer's story and reading my interview, because you do need to have a pretty firm grounding of what's at least being claimed before you dismiss it.

CONAN: We're talking with Alex Heard, editorial director at Outside magazine. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And let's see if we can go next to - this is Karen, Karen with us from Murfreesboro in Tennessee.

KAREN (Caller): Hi. How are you? I enjoy the program.

CONAN: Thank you.

KAREN: I am a huge fan of Krakauer. I'm reading his third book, "Under the Banner of Heaven," right now. I've also listened to Greg Mortenson speak, and I'm familiar with his cause. Again, I am wondering what is -I'm, excuse me, also a professor of English, and I've written book. So I do believe in journalistic integrity. But I have to say: What is it compared to the education of these young girls?

Regardless of - I do feel that there needs to be some insight into this nonprofit. But this attack on the book, to me, is going to take education away from girls in Pakistan that's been proven to be something that's of good use. And is this article from Krakauer of good use?

Mr. HEARD: Yes, I think it's a very useful article. And I just happened to be - have pretty strict standards about the importance of accurate nonfiction. I wrote a book last year, and I spent thousands of hours researching and fact-checking every sentence of it. It would have been easy - I could have fooled my publisher easily if I wanted to add dialogue and scenes that didn't happen to make the story more compelling in places. But if you're in journalism and if you're involved in nonfiction, you're strictly bound by an honor code not to do anything like that. So it does matter. It needs to be pointed out that if this book, in fact, is riddled with fabrications, people need to know about that.

The separate issue is the allocation of resources by CAI, those are related. And I think that is vastly - the more important issue ultimately is, you know, was the money spent in a sloppy manner? Were there blurry lines between Greg Mortenson, celebrity author, and CAI nonprofit organization? That needs to be sorted out.

Krakauer gets into quite a bit of detail, but when you read the article, you'll see that his reporting only took him so far, and there's a lot more to be learned about, you know, if money - he seems to think that money might have been embezzled, but his reporting doesn't answer the question definitively about whether it was. And that's something I want to know.

CONAN: Karen, thank you.

KAREN: Okay, thanks. Yes?

CONAN: Thanks very much.

KAREN: Thank you so much. I'm interested at seeing the outcome, and I can only hope for something positive for the young girls involved.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Let's go next to - this is David, David with us from Little Rock.

DAVID (Caller): Hey. I struggled - excuse me - with Mortenson's narcissism in the first few chapters of that book. And it came through so clearly in the rest of "Three Cups of Tea" that, you know, he's really painting himself as a more-than-perfect person to me. And I worried, you know, with his sloppiness in saying everything, I wondered how he would do in the big leagues when his Central Asia Institute really got off the ground and got to handling some big money. And I felt like he was a person who could justify just about anything that he did...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

DAVID: ...through his own, you know, bigger-than-life self, you know, megalomania. And I want to - I would like to see the accuracy of the book separated from the deeds that the Central Asian Institute has accomplished. But I would like to see the Central Asia Institute held to the same standard as any other charitable organization as to percentage of proceeds that go to administrative costs and overhead.

CONAN: And I think that's going to be an issue that the Montana attorney general's going to address.

DAVID: Yeah.

CONAN: Obviously, narcissism and - in this case, megalomania - that's in the eye of the beholder. I think it's fair to say, Alex Heard, that a lot of people think that Mortenson is among the most inspirational people they've ever heard speak.

Mr. HEARD: Yes. I don't know if you've seen him at one of his presentations. But I saw him in Santa Fe in 2008, and I was really struck by the - this guy has a power over people. It was almost like a religious revival. And everything he said just drew gasps and oohs and aahs, and that's not something that everybody has. He has a magic way of connecting with people. And that's, you know, why this little odd, little organization that he started and was obscure for so long has become what it's become.

CONAN: Alex Heard, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

Mr. HEARD: Thank you.

CONAN: Alex Heard, editorial director at Outside magazine. There's a link to his interview with Greg Mortenson on our website. The conversation will continue on Monday with New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof, his piece "Three Cups of Tea, Spilled" ran in The New York Times today.

Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will take a look at what we can learn about the environment's health by listening to it.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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