Two Cups of Tea, One Cup of B.S.


I'm your fact-checking 'cuz

Fans of Bill Steigerwald's great Reason fact-checking of John Steinbeck's Travels With Charley may find similar interest in this 60 Minutes debunking of a more recent bit of massively best-selling "nonfiction"–Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time. It is a brutal and comprehensive audit. Here's a chunk of transcript:

Upon close examination, some of the most touching and harrowing tales in Mortenson's books appear to have been either greatly exaggerated or made up out of whole cloth.

Mortenson (in an interview): One of the most compelling experiences I had was in July of '96…I went to the area to find a place to build a school. And what happened is, I got kidnapped by the Taliban for eight days.

The kidnapping story was featured in Three Cups of Tea, and referred to in his follow-up best seller, Stones Into Schools, with a 1996 photograph of his alleged captors.

We managed to locate four men who were there when the photo was taken—two of them actually appear in the picture. All of them insist they are not Taliban and that Greg Mortenson was not kidnapped. They also gave us another photo of the group with Mortenson holding the AK-47.

One of the men, Mansur Khan Mahsud, is the research director of a respected think tank in Islamabad and has produced scholarly articles published in the U.S.

Until recently, he had no idea that he had been shown as a kidnapper in a best-selling book.

We spoke with Mahsud via Skype. He told us he and the other people in the photograph were Mortenson's protectors in Waziristan—not his abductors.

Kroft: The story, as Mr. Mortenson tells it, is that he was held for eight days, and won you over by asking for a Koran and promising to build schools in the area. Is that true?

Mahsud: This is totally false, and he is lying. He was not kidnapped.

Zing! Mortenson has clearly done more good works in the world than your average bear. But his apparent fabrications are a reminder that narrators are inherently unreliable, and that wherever you encounter a powerful creation myth, you are likely to find some powerful mythology.

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  1. Mrs. West Texas loves this book and would always get pissed at my making fun of it.


    1. ghhahahahahahahhahahahahhgghhahahhagahjhagahhaggahhahajjaggahajjaghhajajjahjhajajhajghajjgajaakllaahhhahahjjahha.

      I am.

  2. Maybe he was “kidnapped” the way that woman was “kidnapped” by Rand Paul?

    1. Mock not the Mighty Aqua Buddha!

    2. When I first got wind of the Aqua Buddha, I assumed it was a bong, or a lava lamp…some physical thing in the frat house they jokingly called their god. Then it turns out they made the girl bow to a creek in the woods ? That is so WTF stupid, it has the ring of truth.

    3. I was thinking Tawana Brawley, but whatever.

  3. Mortenson has clearly done more good works in the world than your average bear. But his apparent fabrications are a reminder that narrators are inherently unreliable[.]

    He probably took his cues from Our Greatest Literary Genius, Constitutional Scholar, All Around Renaissance Man – and Fearless Leader, albeit with probably a bit more respect for the overall truth than The Great One.

  4. Donning a black hat, he would look like Timothy Oliphant in “Justified,” would he not?

    1. I was thinking David Cassidy.

    2. All white people must look alike to an old Mexican.

      1. Only to the Latinos, who are not as wise as the Latinas.

  5. I thought it was interesting how the third-party foundation-reviewing-guy, Krakauer, called him out on the 3 schools built versus the 11 schools claim. I assume Krakauer doesn’t didn’t travel to Asia to verify it. He probably thinks the 11 schools claim is a lie because it doesn’t agree with Mortenson’s foundation’s records. But maybe those are fake too. How does he know even three were built? (Beyond 60 minutes’ random sampling)

    Maybe I missed it, but 60 minutes wasn’t clear on the possible motive for those kinds of lies, either. The article didn’t really directly connect the idea that the overstated accomplishments might be cover for the personal expenses.

    They just seem to be saying, accomplishments overstated, and sloppy intermingling. Not that one enables the other. Maybe they have to be careful with that accusation.

    1. I’m pretty mad about this. Although I never read the book, my dad enjoyed it so much that I made a donation to Mortenson’s organization in his honor. The sad thing is now that nobody trusts him, not many will be willing to give him money and the girls in his schools will suffer. While I don’t care much about his slanderous misrepresentations (presuming some artistic license), I just hope he hasn’t misrepresented his agency’s work.

  6. “All of them insist they are not Taliban and that Greg Mortenson was not kidnapped.”

    Well, that settles it then. Lying would be against the Kidnappers Code.

    1. I can’t remember where I saw it, but supposedly the “kidnappers” have now released a photo of Mortenson holding an AK-47 and smiling for the camera.

      1. That would, of course, be here where I saw that quote.

      2. Don not be so quick to judge.

  7. LOL, I think you hit the nail square on this head with that one dude. Well done.

  8. Alt-text referencing a Pavement lyric concerning the voice of Getty Lee? Matt Welch, you are a god among men.

    1. I wonder if Welch speaks like an ordinary guy.

      1. I know him and he does.

    2. That would be Geddy to those with any respect for all things holy.

  9. I’m currently reading the first person account of Byron Prorok on his 1933 expedition to Abyssinia (Etheopia): Dead Men Do Tell Tales. The book is an interesting and good read – but is obviously largely BS and exaggeration… Nothing new, I guess.

    1. Herodotus started it.

        1. Well played, sir… well played.

  10. Subject.

    There was a problem posting your comment
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    Damn squirrels!


    Go suck a Hayekm Christfag!


    Chik-fil-A is celebrating tax day by making your receipt good for a the exact same free meal any day in May. Today only! Inquire inside!


    Capitalism, like rules.

    1. This is all too avante garde for me to ‘get’ – but is that true about Chik-fil-A?

      ‘Cuz that’s speaking my language

      1. yeah yeah, completely true Go get you some!

        1. but maybe limited to certain localities.

    2. “Chik-fil-A is celebrating tax day by making your receipt good for a the exact same free meal any day in May.”

      Is that good on Sundays?

      1. No, that’s the Lord’s day. Anything you can buy at Chik-fil-A on a Sunday is gratis.

    3. The government gives receipts when you file your taxes? Will Chick-Fil-A accept my check carbon? I could use some free Chick-Fil-A as I eat there a lot to counter the homo’s boycott.

  11. I assume that this guy is probably passionate about helping people, and has actually done so at some risk to himself.

    But helping people in Afghanistan doesn’t pay very well, so your two simplest options to profit are:
    1) Form a charity and pay yourself exorbitant salary and expenses
    2) Write a fictitious Oprah-type book to cash in

    1. Or do both. Why pidegeonholder?

  12. For what it’s worth, I’ve heard tales of other people being held captive in Afghanistan and Pakistan–whose captors insisted the whole time that the victims weren’t “captives”, they were “honored guests”.

    Still, they were being held for ransom.

    The practice is detailed in this story from the BBC…

    The link says you can’t listen from the site, but you can download the radio program which talks about this kidnapping/honored guest practice for free on iTunes if you search the iTunes store for “Imam of Peace”.

    The program shows up under “DocArchive”.

    1. Actually, I found where you can listen online sans iTunes.…..peace.html

      It’s in at about 6:15, but if you go earlier and listen to the whole thing, it talks quite a bit about the vendetta culture at about 4:45.

      Taking hostages in these areas is apparently common. …not just from this broadcast, but from what I’ve read elsewhere. Hospitality, likewise, is given great esteem in that culture, and it wouldn’t strike me as strange that someone was kidnapped and treated like an honored guest. …or that his captors claimed he was an honored guest.

      From the descriptions I’ve read, they might not want you to feel bad about having been taken hostage! If you listen to this whole broadcast, this Imam is making the point that there are enormous cultural differences between the local Pashtuns, on the one hand, and the jihadis who have essentially invaded Afghanistan and Pakistan from the Middle East and elsewhere on the other.

      Anyway, I’m not saying that hostages have never been treated badly, but I am saying that there isn’t anything about hostages being treated well or being called “honored guests” by their captors that trips my BS detector on this.

      It isn’t unheard of.

    2. Well, according to this story, one of the kidnappers lives in Islamabad, and runs a think tank that publishes scholarly articles in the US. Of course, those articles could be of the “Islam is being oppressed by the evil American imperialists” bent. but still it would be a bit unusual for an intellectual from Islamabad to be directly involved in kidnapping a guy in Afghanistan. And let his picture be taken with an AK-47 in the process.

      Some info on what sort of “think-tank” this guys runs would clarify the matter, I suppose.

  13. I’ve been posting over at the Guardian over one the ongoing debate between Helen Caldicott and George Monbiot over nuclear power.

    It strikes me that a lot of these sort of activists (Caldicott and Mortenson) have crafted these self invented myths of their own heroicism. Caldicott even named her NGO after herself.

    Everyone likes to focus on how big business is self-interested, but they tend not to notice that sometimes political or social activists are pretty self-interested, in a self-aggrandizing way.

    Also, how much money are they making off this stuff? Mortensen got a bestseller out of it, so he’s probably not doing too shabby financially. It would be interesting to see an expose on how much money goes to pay the salaries of NGO employees and how those salaries compare to private sector jobs.

    1. I happen to be acquainted with the CEO of a small non-profit and the founder of another small non-profit and both live quite comfortably. Initially I was surprised, given the “non” in front of the profit. They are probably less wealthy than if they ran profitable businesses, but even so, when I see them in a new car or something I still think, “That’s money that didn’t go to the children”, which isn’t my first thought when I see a doctor driving a Porsche or whatever.

      1. Non-profits can be a good way to make money without having to make it via the traditional means of appealing to a consumer’s self-interest. A frustratingly difficult thing. If you can convince people with deep pockets that you’re “doing good works”, you can make a tidy sum in salaries for your top people.

        This is not to say that non-profits are mere fronts for high salaries– although I suspect a number of smaller ones are.

        1. Smaller, as in like the anti-nuclear group that Halan Caldicott named after herself.

          Also, one has to wonder where these smaller groups get their money from. Donations from the general public, or from larger NGOs?

          Tons of small NGOs get money from huge umbrella organizations like Global Exchange. It’s a comfy way to make a living feeling comfy about your moral rectitude. Heck, I’m sure they take into account the cost-of-socially-responsible living, such as the price of eating organic, fair-trade, hormone-free produce, buying a Prius, and installing solar panels on the roof of your trendy downtown condo.

      2. “Non-profit” means there is nothing left over after expenses to be retained or distributed to shareholders. It just so happens that CEO and other staff salaries qualify as expenses, just as they would for a for-profit concern.

  14. Penn & Teller did an episode of Bullshit called ‘Holier Than Thou’ where they tore apart the legends of Mother Theresa, The Lama, Ghandi.

    Greg Mortenson is just one more example of when you come across someone who seems a little more noble and holy, there’s most likely a LOT of bullshit involved.

    1. Just watched the 60 Minutes piece. There is definitely a lot of bullshit behind Greg Mortenson.

    2. In defense of Mo’ Theresa, I think people around her created a cult of personality. I’m not sure if Mo’ T. has ever said she’s anything that she’s not.

      I could be wrong.

      1. I think the same thing can be said for Ghandi and The Lama.

        Mortenson, at least from the 60 Minutes piece, seems to be a total self promotor.

        The fact remains, bullshit runs deep with all 4.

  15. I had to read that book for a class on social deviance and justice. It was the kind of book you would assume would be a best-seller, with a fairly simple, fast-paced style, but I always thought that it sounded too good to be completely true.

    I don’t doubt the “no, they were guests, we did not kidnap them” thing, and this may be in play here, but I also would not doubt that there is plenty of exaggeration in Mortenson’s story.

  16. Talk about gullible. There are other possibilities here:
    a) Mortensen has exaggerated some episodes to tell a more compelling story, get more work done for his school
    b) Mahsud is “totally lying” or just partially lying. Simply because he works for a think tank and has had articles published, hardly passes the b.s. test. Lots of people who have had articles published and have worked for think tanks or allegedly respectable organizations have been found out: hmmm, remember the story about the guy who wrote “More Guns, Less Crime.”
    c) The truth is somewhere between Mortensen and Mahsud.

    Being skeptical doesn’t mean just totally buying into the first counter-intelligence you find. That’s just another form of gullibility

    1. Mortensen’s fraud is not in doubt. The degree of it is yet to be revealed.

  17. But the degree is important. The schools themselves are not just made up. If some parts of the book are exaggerated, or twisted, to make a more compelling story, then that’s fraudelent, but small potatoes compared to making up the idea that he is creating schools.

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