My take on Greg Mortenson and CAI


Greg Mortenson and Gary Robson

Greg Mortenson with me at a book signing event at my store in Montana.

I am unaffiliated with Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute, and I’m not privy to any financial information beyond what is released on their website. My wife and I have donated to them both personally and through our bookstore, so I was shocked to hear of the hit piece that 60 Minutes and Jon Krakauer put together.

At first, I didn’t want to hear what they had to say. I recorded the episode, and ended up watching it about a month after it aired. I know that Jon Krakauer donated a substantial amount of money to CAI, so I can understand that he was unhappy to find discrepancies in the financial reporting. I don’t understand, however, why this has turned into such a personal crusade for him. The 60 Minutes ambush at the book signing, while typical of them, was uncalled-for. I know how much it would piss me off if reporters pulled something like that at one of my events!

I read the responses Greg sent out to the 60 Minutes questions, and CAI’s responses to the allegations, and found nothing that made me feel uncomfortable about continuing to support the efforts of CAI (all of this information is on CAI’s website). Even the 60 Minutes attack piece pointed out that Greg and CAI have built a lot of schools and educated a lot of children.

3 cups of teaGreg came to our store in 2007, shortly after the paperback release of Three Cups of Tea. He was running late, and I went out to his truck with him to help bring his things in. He pointed out four cases (!) of hardback books in the truck and asked me to help carry them. I told him we really didn’t need that many, since we had a few left and the paperback was out.

“Some people prefer hardbacks,” he told me. “Take these all, and see if you can sell them. If you do, send some money to CAI. If you have copies left that you can’t sell, give them away to people that you think should read them. Libraries, schools, churches, or anyone else.”

(Dear pedants: the previous paragraph is paraphrased. Forgive my use of quotation marks.)

He did not ask for any money himself, either for the speaking engagement or for the books. He just asked that we send something (no specified amount) to CAI if we managed to sell the hardbacks, which he took the time to autograph before he left. This does not sound to me like someone who is profiteering from the books. He didn’t come down in a private jet; he drove an old pickup truck. He didn’t stay in a fancy hotel, either. In fact, that’s the next part of the story…

After Greg’s talk, my wife and I offered to take him and his assistant out to dinner. At first, Greg demurred, but his assistant asked when he had last eaten, and he couldn’t remember, so we insisted. We took him to Bridge Creek restaurant, where co-owner Dennis Christ wouldn’t accept any money. By the time we finished up, it was after 10:00 p.m., and we invited Greg to crash at our house. He wanted to drive home, but he hadn’t slept the night before, and we all thought it was a bad idea for him to drive.

Greg and I talked until 3:00 in the morning. We compared notes on publishers and book signing experiences. For a man who was number one on the New York Times bestseller list, he knew surprisingly little about book publishing. His co-author, David Relin, did all of the heavy lifting on the book deals. Greg told me that the two of them had different goals on the book. For Greg, the purpose of the book was to raise awareness about CAI and their efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. For David, the book was the goal. He’s a writer; that’s his job.

I can absolutely believe the allegations 60 Minutes made about incomplete expense reports and poor documentation of Greg Mortenson’s trips. For all of his amazing focus, Greg is the archetypical absentminded professor. He can’t remember when he ate or slept last, and I somehow doubt he kept a meticulously-organized file of receipts. His sister told us that he’s very innocent and very easy to take advantage of. As an introvert, he’s uncomfortable being in the public eye, and his shyness can come across as evasiveness.

In my personal opinion, based on meeting him and some of his family, I believe that Greg Mortenson is an honorable and genuine man. He is not a slick publicity hound. He is not a smooth and polished public speaker. But he is a man with a mission, and he believes strongly in what he’s doing.

If the goal of Jon Krakauer and 60 Minutes is to take down Central Asia Institute and stop Greg Mortenson from building schools, then I hope they fail. Thousands of children will have better lives thanks to Greg and his compatriots. How many of us can leave behind a legacy like that?

About Gary D. Robson

Gary Robson: Author, sanctuary director, and tea shop owner. I've written books and articles on a zillion different subjects, but everyone knows me for my "Who Pooped in the Park?" books.

Posted on 7 June 2011, in Blog and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Thanks for speaking out, Gary.
    I’m so glad to finally hear someone who still feels about Greg Mortenson (and the attacks by 60 Minutes and Krakauer) as I do.

  2. Thanks for your feedback!

    Richard, I can’t disagree with the facts of the 60 Minutes piece because I wasn’t there. I don’t know whether Krakauer interviewed the same people Mortenson worked with. In this blog post, I’m merely stating my impressions; my feelings. I have read all of the response documents on CAI’s website (follow the link in the main blog post), and I’d encourage you to do the same.

    I will not blindly accept the account in Three Cups of Tea, as I haven’t met David Relin, who did the actual writing, and I wasn’t there firsthand. At the same time, I will not blindly accept the word of Jon Krakauer either. For the moment, I will go with what my gut tells me.

  3. Miriam Cunningham

    Thanks for your insights.

  4. Gary ~ I know booksellers to be honest, caring, and interesting folk (having worked in a college bookstore, a city paperback shop, a political one, and the legendary Savile Bookshop in DC). You sure sound that way! Thank you for a lovely and detailed account of your crossing paths with Mr. Mortenson. The more I read by those who KNOW HIM ~ whether long- or short-term ~ the more I feel absolutely certain of his honesty and generosity. You have done a public service.

  5. Richard Hufford

    Gary, I don’t see that you’re actually disagreeing with the 60 Minutes piece, here. What I remember (and it’s been a couple of months and I am not familiar with Greg Mortenson and CAI) is that no one disagreed that Mortenson does good. The argument I remember is that his anecdotes are not true. I think one of Krakauer’s key statements was that with all the good Greg Mortenson and CAI do, why can’t he tell true anecdotes? His work would be every bit as good if it was based on the truth.
    As far as his accounting goes, I didn’t find that part of the story interesting, because that’s just run of the mill material for 60 Minutes.

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