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.