I believe in the importance of journalism to ferret out charlatans, expose financial fraud, and hold people and institutions accountable. That said, it’s hard to believe why 60 Minutes decided that Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute qualified on any of those fronts – much less why Jon Krakauer joined in this recent barrage.
Let’s get my full disclosure out right away: I have no dog and no yak in this fight, except to express my outrage at a high-profile hatchet job of a man I met once 14 years ago in the now-fabled Pakistani village of Korphe, site of Mortenson’s first school. I don’t know Steve Kroft, except that he interviewed me once for a 60 Minutes segment on the Earth Liberation Front, a subject of my first book. It was a pleasant experience. I have never met Krakauer, although we once exchanged phone messages and have some mutual friends and acquaintances.
I met Greg Mortenson in Pakistan in 1998, years before he hit national headlines. I was on an assignment from Blue magazine to write a profile of Brent Bishop, Mortenson’s brother-in-law, who lead a trash cleanup near K2 and tried to begin a porter training program in Baltistan. Bishop introduced me to his brother-in-law in Islamabad, and we all traveled by bus up the Indus River Valley to Skardu and ultimately by jeep and foot to Korphe. We stayed in the simple house of the village headman – the late Haji Ali – and felt the stark, cold, subsistence edge of a high mountain village only accessible on foot. The school’s first teacher helped me carry my gear on our hike up to Concordia, a wide spot on a glacier on the way to K2.
Mortenson was one of the more interesting people I had met in a lifetime of traveling and writing about interesting people. He was humble, dressed in a dirty shalwar kameez, and seemed about as guileless as anybody I had ever met, with an almost monkish disregard for consumerism or popular culture. He was a bit naïve, it seemed to me, but was obviously pleased with the bridge over the Braldu River that he had helped build, as well as the school in Korphe. Haji Ali and the other Baltis treated him with great affection and respect. He returned the gestures in word and deed.
I spoke a lot with Mortenson about his new Central Asia Institute, and his idea to build more schools to provide opportunities for young girls to get an education. He told me the now-disputed story about his first visit to Korphe after his failed summit attempt on K2 – and his inspiration to build a school there. When we returned to the relative metropolis of Skardu, I sat in on meetings he held with local mullahs, and visited a vocational school for young women that Mortenson said he had helped to get off the ground. His comments about drinking a lot of tea can be easily verified.
I returned from that trip and – no disrespect for Brent and his clean-up work – said to myself, “Greg is the real story here.” To my everlasting regret, I never wrote that story.
On the strength of my impressions from that visit alone, I find myself ready to defend Mortenson against what I believe is a seriously deficient 60 Minutes segment, lacking in basic elements of fairness, balance, perspective, insight and context. I was taught in journalism school that if you’re going to take somebody out with a story, do it in a way that you could look that person in the eye in the grocery market the next day. I doubt Steve Kroft – or Jon Krakauer – could do that. Both of them apparently tried to contact Mortenson only at the last minute, which is something that journalists will do when they are after a pro-forma denial, rather than an interview to ascertain truth or even get another side of the story. From Mortenson’s accounts, both on the CAI website and in his interview with Outside online, it’s clear that the fog of development work may be no less confusing than the fog of war.
I cannot go through the chapter and verse that Krakauer did in his online assassination of Mortenson, and I am certain that he has alienated people and kept bad books. From a few conversations I’ve had today with people who have known Mortenson for years, I have no reason to doubt that Mortenson can be difficult, unconventional, poorly organized, and chronically late to appointments. He is probably ill-suited to run a $20-million-dollar a year non-profit, and seems stubborn enough to ignore good advice from people who otherwise appreciate his work and message. Despite the inference that since he sometimes travels by private jet he must be profligate, there is no evidence I’m aware of that Mortenson lives lavishly. He doesn’t comb his hair much, either, as I recall.
But here’s the crux for me. As somebody who has worked in a Muslim country (I was a Knight International Press Fellow working in Algeria in 2006), I know that Americans need a lot of bridge building in the Islamic world. Mortenson has gone where few others have gone, and has put in incredible time and energy to raise awareness, seed schools, and give girls opportunities for education that would not be theirs otherwise. I have no doubt he has done orders of magnitude more good than harm. The same cannot be said for a lot of NGOs doing development work around the world, much less our military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And, I’m afraid, it cannot be said of the pieces that 60 Minutes and Krakauer have just spewed out.