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The Con Man and his Pet Columnist

American writer Greg Mortenson with Gultori schoolchildren in Pakistan, undated.
American writer Greg Mortenson with Gultori schoolchildren in Pakistan, undated.

When Greg Mortenson—the Montana nurse who earned worldwide fame with his campaign to build schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan and then recounted the tale in his mammoth international bestseller Three Cups of Tea—was exposed as a fraud in April, there was one prominent media figure he could count on for support: the Pulitzer-prize-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.

“One of the people I’ve enormously admired in recent years is Greg Mortenson,” Kristof wrote in his April 20 column. While conceding that the accusations against Mortenson “raised serious questions,” Kristof countered that “it’s indisputable that Greg has educated many thousands of children, and he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.” He acknowledged that Mortenson gave “a blurb for my most recent book, Half the Sky, and I read his book Three Cups of Tea to my daughter.” As for Mortenson’s critics, Kristof had the following message: “Let’s not forget that, 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.”

The accusations against Mortenson—unearthed by 60 Minutes in collaboration with the journalist and filmmaker Jon Krakauer in an e-book entitled Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way—are grave. Mortenson is said to have fabricated the very incident he says gave him the inspiration to launch his school-building charity, the Central Asia Institute (CAI). According to the creation myth, Mortenson stumbled upon the Pakistani village Korphe following a failed attempt at climbing the world’s second highest mountain, K-2. After the villagers cared for him and restored him to health, Mortenson says, he promised to return and build them a school. As Krakauer shows, however, Mortenson did not stagger into Korphe following his descent from K-2; he pledged to build the school there more than a year later, on a second trip.

Read the rest of this article in "Commentary Magazine."