“60 Minutes” Quest for Sensationalism Rule Over Probity

In 1993, mountaineer Greg Mortenson joined a group of climbers set out to climb K2, the second peak of Pakistan’s Karakoram Range in northern Kashmir. The climb was cut short in order to rescue another climber, during which Mortenson became lost and disorientated. Exhausted and weak, he stumbled into the village of Korphe. The village’s chief elder, the late Haji Ali, welcomed him and took him in, caring for him until he was well. During his recuperation, he recognized there was a desperate need for education, especially for girls. To show his appreciation for their hospitality he organized the funding necessary to build Korphe a school for girls. From that beginning, building schools for girls in Pakistan and later in Afghanistan turned out to be his life’s work. Teaming up with the late Jean Hoerni, a Silicon Valley pioneer, in 1996 they co-founded the Central Asia Institute (CAI), a foundation dedicated to building schools in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. In 1994, students at Westside Elementary School, River Falls, Wisconsin collected 62,340 pennies to help build a school in Pakistan, which became the name of CAI’s philanthropic program “Pennies for Peace.”

In recent years, Greg Mortenson has written two books, “Three Cups of Tea” and “Stones to Schools,” and has taken on a hectic schedule of speaking engagements, all to promote the CAI’s mission.

According to CAI, it has built 170 schools in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan, supported fully or partially 687 teachers, and say they have educated over 58,000 students of which 44, 000 are girls. Mortenson claims “This year alone (2011), just in Afghanistan, CAI plans and already started work to establish and build 63 to 68 more, mostly girls’ schools, based on the significant donations received in 2009-2010.”

Unfortunately, a CBS “60 Minutes” investigation charged that Greg Mortenson’s book “Three Cups of Tea” is exaggerated and fabricated; alleges that many schools CIA built don’t exist or were built by others, and that CIA may have mishandled donations.

Greg Mortenson and CIA strongly dispute these accusations.

I cannot agree more with Daniel Glick who says, 60 Minutes expose on Three Cups of Tea is weak – and wrong, and, that [he has] “no doubt he[Mortenson] has done orders of magnitude more good than harm.”

In 2009, in recognition for his humanitarian work and promotion of girl’s schools and education, Greg Mortenson received the Sitara-e-Pakistan (Star of Pakistan), Pakistan’s highest civilian award.

In 2009, he was deservingly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, by several bi-partisan members of U.S. Congress, and according to Norwegian odd-makers was believed to have been in a handful of finalists of the Peace prize that was awarded to President Obama on October 10, 2009.

According to a CBS News Release in 2009, the late Don Hewitt, creator of
60 Minutes, “liked to say that 60 Minutes’ success was not the best thing to happen to the small screen. Especially later in his life, he railed about how his news magazine changed television for the worse. News programs were never supposed to make money, he argued, and the minute they did, the pressure was on for news to get ratings. The quest for ratings led to more sensational topics on an increasingly larger number of broadcasts. Indeed, as soon as 60 Minutes broke the top 20 in 1977, a parade of imitators began and, at one point in the late ’90s, nearly 30 percent of the top 20 programs were news magazines. Hewitt began to say publicly that ‘behind every news magazine there is a failed sitcom’ – the networks were using the format to cover their mistakes, not the news.”

And so, “60 Minutes” is certainly no stranger to “yellow journalism,” and there is more than enough evidence of what stirs audiences to read or view certain material, clearly illustrating that sensationalism rules over probity.

It is my fervent hope that other reputable news outlets in their pursuit for sensationalism can produce evidence of where “60 Minutes” missed the boat. After all, what news organization would not jump at the chance of proving a competitor wrong?

Sources:

60 Minutes, The Program Video Sunday, April 17, 2011

CBS News, Questions over Greg Mortenson’s stories, 60 Minutes

Daniel Glick, 60 Minutes expose on Three Cups of Tea is weak – and wrong, DanielGlick.net

Photojournalist Ellen Jaskol and author Karin Ronnow, Journey of Hope, Central Asia Institute

Greg Mortenson and CAI’s responses:

Greg Mortenson’s Message to Supporters
CAI Board of Directors Statement 04/16/11
CAI Board of Directors Response to “60 Minutes” Questions
Greg Mortenson’s response to “60 Minutes” Questions