Sydney, Australia May 9 – I know it’s not customary to dateline blogs, but I’m in Oz and I’m going to write about perspective, so it seems fitting. Here in an antipodal suburb of the global village, I’ve just watched Steve Kroft interview President Obama on my laptop, and let’s give 60 Minutes their due: they pulled off a journalistic coup, and Obama made plenty of news with his remarks.
(As an aside, it looks really good from Down Under to have a U.S. president say, “We don’t spike the football” instead of gloating “Mission Accomplished” after breaking the wrong country on purpose. What do the good football coaches say? “Act like you’ve been in the end zone before.”)
I said I’d write about perspective, so here goes. Once, when I was on Larry King Live discussing the murder of a six-year-old named JonBenet Ramsey, Larry was about to take a commercial break and said, “Tomorrow! On the show! Yasir Arafat!” When the cameras were off, I muttered something about feeling a little sheepish being on the show when there were so many bigger stories going on in the world. Larry brushed me off, and in a few seconds we were talking about the Grand Jury’s refusal to indict the child beauty queen’s parents for murder. The show went on.
I’m not saying that 60 Minutes, and the rest of the news industry, shouldn’t cover all sorts of stories, including improprieties of do-gooder organizations. We should and we do. But when I first commented on the 60 Minutes piece on Greg Mortenson and the Montana-based Central Asia Institute (CAI), I said that the piece lacked “basic elements of fairness, balance, perspective, insight and context.” In light of recent events, the statement stands, and then some.
The interview with Obama makes a pretty good counterpoint, as far as relevance, importance, and perspective go. Besides getting a glimmer of a backstage pass to the situation room during a defining moment in history, we also learn that the U.S. relationship with Pakistan is fraught, difficult, and challenging. Obama takes pains to remind the American people that Pakistan has been, since 9/11, the “chief ally in the fight against Al Qaeda” and that “good relations with Pakistan are still vital to U.S. interests.” That’s going to remain true, even if some elements of the Pakistan military or intelligence services knew where Osama was hiding for five years. Maybe the nice things the president said about our good friends in Islamabad were 50 percent bullshit or more. But the truth is that even people who couldn’t find Pakistan on a map after you spotted them the right continent should now understand that Pakistan is maddeningly, incessantly important.
And oh, isn’t that where Greg Mortenson has been working for the past 16 years or so, building literal schools and metaphorical bridges? In a country so distrustful of the United States that the president decided not to release photos of a very dead Osama bin Laden because there are plenty of people who wouldn’t believe the photos were authentic, anyway?
(Then again, there are still plenty of people in this country who don’t believe that Obama’s long-form birth certificate is real, either. Maybe we could put them all together with the climate change deniers on a Pacific Island nation about to be inundated with rising sea levels, and call the place: “Conspiristan.”)
Back to Bozeman and the CAI, rather than Abbottabad and the CIA. Since my first post, I’ve heard both privately and publicly (please do read the comments on my earlier posts; the include some very intelligent discourse) from people who have admired Greg in action, but suspect he has sometimes bent a 501(c)3 reporting rule or two to get things done. I’ve heard from one of the pilots who flew Greg around in one of his “private jets,” saying that Greg often goes where commercial flights don’t, and certainly not on the grueling speaking schedule he keeps. We now know from a CAI update that some of the allegations about financial impropriety were likely because 60 Minutes and Krakauer cherry-picked some records, and the allegation that Greg used CAI as “an ATM machine” might have been a great quote but might not have a damned thing to do with Mortenson being personally enriched by having the PIN number.
As the details of Greg’s questionable bookkeeping and exaggeration or lying become clearer (he still has some ‘splaining to do), I ask again about the contextual importance of the allegations and “revelations” about Mortenson. Some of these clarifications will still make some people uncomfortable, while others will shrug them off. For instance, Jon Krakauer makes a big deal that Mortenson had never been to the Himalayas before his ill-fated K2 climb, and I know for a fact that he had been in Nepal climbing at least one 20,000-foot peak, because I’ve talked to somebody who was there with him. The truth may yet be – and I’m guessing it will – that Mortenson never climbed any of the big peaks that the book claims he did. And I sure want to know why he fabricated that fact if he didn’t.
I’m not denying there are still some big, fat questions out there: did Mortenson donate six figures to CAI, and are they on his tax returns and CAI’s donor lists? Is there a multi-million dollar endowment ready for the right moment to build schools and pay teachers from Fayzabad to Mingora? Can Mortenson agree to assemble a Board of Directors that supplies real oversight? (In most non-profits, the executive director serves at the pleasure of the board, not the other way around.)
But in the big picture (and that’s what I’m talking about from across the international dateline), I still don’t get why Mortenson’s antics warranted the kind of howitzers that 60 Minutes and Krakauer launched.
Here’s why: Osama’s dead. My guess is that we need Mortenson and people like them more than ever. Clay feet and all.