This past Monday, the civil lawsuit against the Central Asia Institute (CAI) and the authors and publisher of Three Cups of Tea, was dismissed. The CAI is the non-profit Mortenson co-founded that works in Afghanistan and Pakistan building schools and promoting education.
Quick Catch-Up in Case You Don’t Know the Muck-Up. Author, Jon Krakauer and CBS news show “60 Minutes” did ‘exposes’ (more like accusation flinging) on purported untruths in Three Cups of Tea, disbelieving the CAI’s stats for schools built in Afghanistan and Pakistan; Greg Mortenson’s account of how he first came to be interested in building schools in such a remote and dangerous region; and whether he was really kidnapped by the Taliban. Read Mortenson’s response to these allegations.
Judge’s take: After plaintiffs were given five tries (amendments) to come up with a case to support their claims of fraud, deceit, breach of contract or racketeering, the judge concluded, “…the imprecise, in part flimsy, and speculative nature of the claims and theories advanced underscore the necessary conclusion that further amendment would be futile. This case will be dismissed with prejudice.” For more on the Mortenson case, read here.
A Few Points About the Mortensen/Three Cups of Tea Case:
- I’m glad I write mostly fiction.
- The CAI can now get on with their worthy mission in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Nothing like a lawsuit to stymie everything. They work with local communities to build, supply, staff, and maintain over 180 schools and 30 vocational centers. They provide support to an additional 56 schools, 20 literacy centers, eight scholarship programs, and 22 public health (potable water, midwifery, and disaster-relief) projects. (stats from CAI’s recent newsletter)
- Nobody’s perfect. Mortenson’s had issues with book royalties: how he benefitted…and how the CAI benefitted from his book sales and speaking engagements all over the world. Promote one; promote the other. Who pays? The dual benefit sounds like an accounting nightmare…and has proven to be. In April, the Montana Attorney General announced a settlement where Mortenson pays $1M to the CAI for mismanagement of funds. But, if you’ve read Three Cups of Tea, you know that admin stuff is not his strong suit. In my opinion, he’s not a bad guy; he’s just not details-oriented. If he was more geared toward stopping to think about the possible ramifications and risks of things, he probably wouldn’t have accomplished what he has in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
- Anyone who has worked in management or with volunteers knows you need to identify your team members’ strengths and weaknesses. Mortenson is an intrepid, fearless sort who puts himself out there and makes things happen. He’s passionate about education and its implications for peace. But that does not a detail-oriented person make. He needs those types around him to keep him on track.
- I worked in humanitarian logistics for several years, so in the book, when he first talked about taking all these heavy-duty supplies to this remote, mountainous village to build a school, my brow furrowed and my mind immediately went to, “How are you going to get them there?” Again, not his initial strong suit. (But maybe now it is. Sometimes, just takes some trial and error).
- Humanitarian work is HARD. Very. There are no cookie-cutter responses because there are so many facets and factors. Overseas projects involve many layers of people and dip into all kinds of cultural issues, often without first realizing it. (A subject I discuss in my book.)
A Concern in the Publishing Community Raised by this case: Along with the CAI, Greg Mortenson (whose story it is) and David Oliver Relin (who wrote the book in collaboration with Mortenson), Penguin Group (the publisher) was named in the lawsuit. This would’ve had serious implications if they’d lost. It would’ve in effect held the publisher responsible for verifying every detailed fact their authors site as truth—a task next to impossible. (Don’t get me wrong; publishers need to act responsibly and not just print whatever, but complete verification would take more effort than running Top Secret background checks on each author.)
What are your views on this case? Do you think publishers should be held responsible for every word their authors say? What’s your take on Mortenson’s book and the lawsuit?