Greg Mortenson's valuable work is ongoing
Let me begin with full disclosure, a somewhat romantic relic in today's "gotcha"-style journalism: I consider Greg Mortenson a friend and colleague, and in fact asked him to blurb my new book, which he graciously did.
So when I watched "60 Minutes" and writer Jon Krakauer accuse Mortenson of fraud, misappropriation of funds and lying in his memoir Three Cups of Tea, my first reaction was to trust the man I know rather than to jump on the bandwagon with his accusers.
Here's another disclosure: I don't believe that journalists can be totally objective and report without bias, opinion or even some agenda sneaking in. What I do believe is that we can and should be fair in covering our subjects as well as owning our opinions, and here are a few of mine.
Having traveled through the tribal areas of northern Pakistan, I have seen Mortenson's Central Asia Institute schools with my own eyes. You spot the schools from a long distance as you approach the dusty villages because they are the tidy stone buildings with clean, square edges, built to withstand the earthquakes, avalanches and floods, and have bright blue roofs, glass in the windows, flowers in the window boxes and girls in immaculate white headscarves headed to their classes, arms entwined.
When I interviewed Mortenson, I found him to be a reluctant celebrity painfully shy, socially awkward and always eager to thank you and run for the door. The only thing that I questioned when I first heard his story, was his ability to return, again and again, to a region I had found exhausting, frustrating and even frightening. After all, it is a primitive war zone and unlike most of us who visit, research and flee for the comforts of flush toilets and clean tap water, Mortenson made it his second home.
Over Memorial Day weekend the Telluride Mountainfilm Festival, which is actually less and less about the mountains and more and more about social activism, gathered to "celebrate the indomitable spirit." Their poster child was Tim DeChristopher, who earlier this year was convicted in federal court after bidding millions of dollars for oil and gas leases which he had no intention of paying, in order to protect what he considered wilderness areas of the desert southwest.
I do not take objection to DeChristopher's Quixotic quest to protect pristine land from oil derricks, but I do take issue with Mountainfilm which is deifying DeChristopher, who has been convicted of a federal crime, while demonizing Mortenson, who clearly has not.
When "60 Minutes" aired their allegations on April 17, Mountainfilm told Mortenson, a scheduled speaker as well as a jurist for the festival, he could attend, but only if he sat on a public panel and answered the charges.
Mortenson, scheduled for heart surgery to fix an atrial septal defect, bowed out, and his representative, Anne Beyersdorfer, took one look at the scheduled panel and decided that the public airing felt more akin to a public execution, and opted out. Given that one panelist went unchallenged in calling Mortenson "the Bernie Madoff of nonprofits," she may have been right.
Finally, let me disclose that I believe Mortenson is innocent until proven guilty. That said, I think he needs to get healthy and fully face the heat, something his heart condition has not allowed (in addition to the ASD, the cardiologists found an aneurysm and performed open heart surgery on June 3).
And perhaps it's too late for him to answer the charges. We live in a sad and scary time when almost anything can be asserted, picked up by the press, blogs and rumor mills, and spread like a wildfire as if it were the absolute truth. By the time facts are checked, claims are debunked and sensationalistic tidbits found to be less so, the damage is done. The man and his mission have been put out of business.
Meanwhile, the Central Asia Institute is trying to continue its work so that girls in war-torn areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan have a school over their heads.
For now, that's good enough for me.
Jennifer Jordan, a writer, filmmaker and reporter, has twice traveled through the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan on her way to the base of K2 to research her two books and a documentary for National Geographic, each on the history of the mountain and its ill-fated climbers.