CBS' 60 Minutes has broadcast a damaging segment on Greg Mortenson, the author of the New York Times best-seller Three Cups of Tea, alleging that many of the stories in the book are exaggerated or outright fabrications and questioning the financial practices of his charity, the Central Asia Institute.
Questioned is the seminal story in the book telling how Mortenson stumbled into the village of Korphe after failing to summit Pakistan's K2.
"It's a beautiful story and it's a lie," Jon Krakauer, the author of Into Thin Air and Into The Wild, tells CBS. Krakauer was an early supporter of Mortenson but, according to CBS, withdrew financial support for his charity after a few years over concerns about how it was being managed.
Since then, Krakauer and others have begun to question Mortenson's account of events in Three Cups of Tea. Krakauer says the story of visiting Korphe in 1993 is untrue.
CBS questions another narrative in his second book, Stones Into Schools, one in which Mortenson claims he was kidnapped by the Taliban and held for several days. A photo showing Mortenson with his alleged kidnappers is staged, and the people in the photo, some of which 60 Minutes tracked down, are not Taliban, the program says.
Despite the allegations, Krakauer cautions that Mortenson is "not Bernie Madoff."
"Let's be clear. He has done a lot of good. He has helped thousands of students in Pakistan and Afghanistan."
Mortenson, who got the famous 60 Minutes ambush interview treatment at a book signing, refused to talk to the network. He did, however, defend himself, issuing a statement after the segment aired.
In it, he insists the Korphe story is true and answers other criticisms:
"The time about our final days on K2 and ongoing journey to Korphe village and Skardu is a compressed version of events that took place in the fall of 1993."
Update at 2:50 p.m. ET: I just discovered that Mortenson also talked to Outside magazine (coincidentally, a publication that Krakhauer has frequently written for).
Outside asks him about the 1993 K2 story:
"Last night [Saturday, April 16th], one of our staff talked with two people from Korphe and they re-affirmed that I was Korphe in 1993, two years before we built a bridge there," Mortenson says.
"Although this is irrelevant in American culture, it's worth noting that in the Balti language of northeast Pakistan, there is little or no emphasis on tenses, and "now" can mean a few minutes, weeks, or even a whole season. The Balti find westerners' emphasis on time confusing."
One interviewee in the 60 Minutes piece recounts being told by an insider at CAI that Mortenson used the organization's finances as his "personal ATM". Here's part of Mortenson's response:
"... I was spending more and more time away from my family, and it was really having a huge impact on my wife and kids. Using charter flights, which I only started doing in 2009, allowed me to pack in many more cities. I get about 2,400 speaking requests a year. About 400 of the ones last year were offering to pay money. So I mix them. And, since January, I have totally paid for all my own travel."