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April 18, 2011

Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea: shading truth?

"Three Cups of Tea" author Greg Mortenson is under scrutiny after a 60 Minutes report questioned details in his book. Among them: how his plan to build schools in impoverished countries was hatched, and whether he was kidnapped by the Taliban as he claimed.

Mortenson has responded with a vigorous defense of the Central Asia Institute, a non-profit he helped found. "I stand by the information conveyed in my book, and by the value of CAl’s work in empowering local communities to build and operate schools that have educated more than 60,000 students," he says in one of many statements regarding the 60 Minutes segment. He has found another forum in his hometown paper, the Bozeman (MT) Daily Chronicle.

Fabrications have tarnished other best-selling memoirs, most notably James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces." I would have hated to see a philanthropist like Mortenson eviscerated by the 60 MInutes crew, as Frey was by Oprah Winfrey.

Some of the allegations regarding Mortenson seem to fall into the category of poetic license -- collapsing time to tell a better story. That was an issue that I discussed Saturday with James Patterson and Charles "Chic" Dambach on a CityLit Festival paneI on memoirs. They both acknowledged taking some license in their books, and I really don't mind that -- but an author should acknowledge the practice in a preface or elsewhere in the book.

The Taliban question cuts more deeply. Mortenson's tale of enlightenment is dramatic enough, and doesn't need to be embellished. That said, I can understand the haziness surrounding the allegiances of people he encountered. I just hope he didn't stretch reality to market his book or his non-profit. He owes a debt to the millions of people who bought his book and helped fund his good works -- and that debt is the truth.

Posted by Dave Rosenthal at 4:05 PM | | Comments (2)


I have met him and worked with him. He is very honest and I trust him. I wonder how much 60 minutes paid its folks for a "breaking story." I wish journalism could do more than try to sensationalize good work. I refuse to buy into that disgusting trend and will not support the advertisers of 60 minutes.
With all the mess in Congress and the dishonesty in the banks, they have to go after him? And what for? The man is an inspiration.

I don't understand how you can lump james patterson in with mortenson. james patterson writes fiction. of course he takes creative license. it's all creative license. that's what fiction is.

i have not read mortenson. maybe he stretched the truth. maybe he was sandbagged. but if a work purports to be NON-fiction, it should be truthful or there should be a disclaimer, i.e. some content of this work has been condensed or fictionalized. ---- Sorry for the confusion, but I was referring to a different James Patterson, the author of "Bermuda Shorts." -- Dave

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About the blogger
Dave Rosenthal came to The Baltimore Sun as a business reporter in 1987 and now is the Maryland Editor. He reads a wide range of books (but never as many as he'd like), usually alternating between non-fiction and fiction. Some all-time favorites: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole; Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery; and anything by Calvin Trillin or John McPhee. He belongs to a book club with a Jewish theme.
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