THE PENDULUM HAS STARTED TO SWING, BUT WILL IT SWING ENOUGH?

Greg Mortenson: he needs to come out of hiding

It’s official, I’m now obsessed with Greg Mortenson and desperately want to know everything about who he is, what makes him tick and most important of all, why he hasn’t defended himself after the scorching 60Minutes expose´ Sunday night on his memoir, “Three Cups of Tea.” The report accused him of fabricating his heroic storie, then squandering millions raised for his charity.

Perhaps my reaction was delayed a day or two after learning the biggest fallout right after the story was that The Early Show had failed to follow up on the CBS exclusive on Monday morning. As a former senior executive producer of that show, I couldn’t help think, “who would I have booked, where does the story go from here?”

I know what star I would have reached for: Greg Mortenson. I would have offered him something Steve Kroft could not: a live, uninterrupted, unedited interview forum in which to defend himself. It is something he still needs to do.

WHY THE KRISTOF DEFENSE HELPS, BUT ISN’T ENOUGH

This morning, Pulitzer prize-winning columnist Nicholas Kristof defended Mortenson in an op ed piece in the New York Times. Despite the puppy pass given for the obvious “sins” against non-fiction journalism, Kristof begins to explain the greater good Mortenson has done.

“One of the people I’ve enormously admired in recent years is Greg Mortenson. He’s a former mountain climber who, after a failed effort to climb the world’s second-highest mountain, K2, began building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Girls study at Afghanistan school built by Greg Mortenson (photo credit: Nicholas D. Kristof/The New York Times)

“In person, Greg is modest, passionate and utterly disorganized. Once he showed up half-an-hour late for a speech, clumping along with just one shoe — and then kept his audience spellbound with his tale of building peace through schools.”

Kristof’s description began to help me round out the picture of the man featured on 60 Minutes. As someone who knows Mortenson intimately, and has been to the schools, and is now grappling with his own personal judgments, I think Kristof would have been a great Early Show booking.

“Greg has spent chunks of time traipsing through Afghanistan and Pakistan, constructing schools in impossible places, and he works himself half to death. Instead of driving around in a white S.U.V. with a security detail, he wears local clothes and takes battered local cars to blend in. He justly berates himself for spending too much time on the road and not enough with his wife, Tara Bishop, and their children, Amira and Khyber. “I’ve counted Greg as a friend, had his family over at my house for lunch and extolled him in my column.”

Kristof describes the Mortenson schools he visited as “some of the happiest places in Afghanistan.” The solid, heavy hammer of 60 Minutes accused Mortenson of using his charity, the Central Asia Institute, “as his personal A.T.M.,” something Mortenson will have to explain. The intense 9-month report has triggered an investigation by the attorney general of Montana where the charity is based.

I have a feeling we all know someone like Mortenson — maybe not someone who has risked his life to make sure girls are educated in a culture that might find them stoned to death for flirting or gang raped in revenge for a brother’s indiscretion. But we all have friends who exaggerate and then begin to believe their more entertaining stories. I imagine Mortenson has some pretty good answers for some of the allegations, and some not-so-good answers for others. Why not let us in?

I suspect he can explain away some schools he built which 60 Minutes showed are now empty, abandoned, used as storage sheds. Were they not sustainable in certain areas? Were teachers, families intimidated, threatened? It has been discussed that in 2009 only 41 per cent of the money he raised went to build schools. A lot went to what 60 Minutes portrays as a self-aggrandizing book tour worthy of a rock star. I’d like to hear if Mortenson think that’s what it takes to get Americans to listen, and reach into their pockets. Maybe we’ll learn that, like so many, Mortenson began with the greatest of intentions, but somehow was corrupted by the headiness of it all.

This, of course, is the thesis of Jon Krakauer. Not only did he participate in the 60 Minutes report Sunday night, he’s published an incredibly researched and detailed digital book: “Three Cups of Deceit.” I downloaded it today and devoured page after page of what the author describes as “the tragic tale of good intentions gone very wrong.”

It is impossible to refute Krakauer’s keen reporting on Greg Mortenson as the humanitarian hero who lost his way. He carefully deconstructs Mortenson’s tall tales with eyewitnesses and calendars. He also portrays a man on a mission who can’t be bothered with western details of corporate accountablity, always at odds with his own charity board.

In a funny way, Mortenson evokes the same reaction I had towards Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinski scandal. You want to shake both men by the shoulders and yell, “You are doing so much good, why would you risk it all for this?” In the same spirit, I think putting Mortenson permanently out of business for his sins, would be as silly as paralyzing the United States presidency for Clinton’s. (Oh, yeah, we actually did that.)

As I said before, even after reading Krakauer’s 75-page online book, I am still obsessed with knowing what makes him tick; I still need to hear from Mortenson. I simply need to know the full story before I accept an apology (not that Mortenson has even yet asked.) I simply believe good people are rare and they deserve second chances. There are reports today that Mortenson is unavailable because he is facing heart surgery. If true, I wish him a speedy recovery so he can take quick corrective action.

HERE’S SOME UNSOLICITED ADVICE FOR MORTENSON

First, step out of the shadows and go on the record in a way that’s not perceived as an infomercial. Once upon a time , and years before Monica Lewinsky, I wrote a letter requesting the first interview with Paula Corbin Jones who had then filed a sexual harassment suit against President Clinton. I suggested she take a pass on requests from Katie, Connie, Leslie, Diane and Barbara to sit in the hot seat across from one of the toughest interviewers in Washington, D.C.: ABC’s Sam Donaldson. She took me up on the offer. At the time, it spoke a volume.

Select the fairest interviewer you can find, someone who, like Sam Donaldson, is respected and doesn’t need to score career points at your expense. If you don’t want to go on The Early Show, try George Stephanopoulos, Terry Moran, or Cynthia McFadden over at ABC. I have worked with them all and can personally vouch for them. They can all offer you live options without editing. In the interview, explain away what you can, then admit your mistakes. Promise corrections and offer remedies.

Do not go on Nightline and tell more lies, as John Edwards did about his extra-marital affair and love child. You will be eaten alive.

Immediately release a revised edition of the book and offer readers an exchange for earlier editions. The new book should have a disclaimer in the forward that explains how your experiences were “compressed.” Or just re-write them.

As for the story of the of your eight days held hostage now that the man in the photo has come forward to identify himself not as your kidnapper, but your tour guide and his cousin? Perhaps the explanation of that whopper comes out of a seed of truth. Maybe in that mysterious and war-torn region it’s easy to be fearful of those you don’t know. How easy it must be to wonder, even if one trusts the tour guide, can you also trust his cousin?

Building schools for girls without the backing of a military can’t make you very popular in that part of the world. In fact, as every network knows, the one way to get some protection: cash. (Hmmm, I wonder if that tilts his administrative costs of the charity.)

And finally, vow to bag the private jets. Offer to re-imburse if you can. In my most generous heart and most creative imagination I cannot find an excuse for not flying commercial.

COME FORWARD FOR THEM

I’ve never met Mortenson, but like his friend, Kristof, I worry that scandals like this will leave Americans disillusioned and cynical. And that’s not good in a time where even the most charitable Americans are feeling a bit of fatigue from helping victims of flooding, tsunamis, earthquakes, oil spills, famine and more. That, plus a market crash and continuing high unemployment does not make raising money for far away girls an easy task.

As his friend, Kristof, says today, “Even if all the allegations turn out to be true, Greg has still built more schools and transformed more children’s lives than you or I ever will.” So why not let Mortenson tell the fully revised story, reveal his mistakes, then bring in a strong charity admin team and let him carry on the “god’s work” to which he’s dedicated his life.

Let’s not give Greg Mortenson his 15 minutes of fame/shame and forever cast him aside. I have seen the devil and I’m pretty sure it’s not him.


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