Writing, filmmaking, and journalism are not jobs for the faint of heart. They often expose you to harsh criticism and sometimes bullying threats. They are occasionally ugly, even brutal. They demand long days and all too often sleepless nights. And they rarely reward with riches. But, they are jobs that need doing and they are jobs that once done and done well, do reward because it means you’ve spoken truth to power.
“Are you sure you want to make this film?”
My friend Sandy Hill looked worried as she asked me the question. Her concern was valid. She knew first-hand about toxic enemies, when the writer Jon Krakauer singled out her and guide Anatoli Boukreev for fault in the 1996 tragedy on Everest in which eight climbers died in a single storm. And here I was, contemplating a film project that would put me directly in his crosshairs.
But, I thought, I will tackle the project in a way she wasn’t able to when she was attacked – I would work as a journalist and approach it as I had every investigation – with cold, hard facts directing my research and determining the narrative. Surely, I wouldn’t, couldn’t, become a target if I stuck to exposing the facts I found. Surely, no one would target me for telling the truth.
However, I knew I would also be taking on one of the largest, most powerful corporations in the world – CBS — and my stomach roiled with Sandy’s question.
I tried to steady my gaze as I replied.
“Yes,” I lied. “I’m sure I want to do this.”
It had begun on April 17, 2011 – the day the CBS program “60 Minutes” broadcast a segment in which they shined their spotlight on renowned philanthropist and bestselling author (“Three Cups of Tea”) Greg Mortenson. The program called him a liar, a fraud, and an all-around charlatan in the writing of his memoir and in the running of his foundation, Central Asia Institute (CAI), a nonprofit NGO dedicated to building schools in some of the most remote and dangerous areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
I watched the piece and thought, wait a minute; every story has at least two sides, but the “60 Minutes” report only seemed to have one. For whatever reasons, the program and its producers interviewed only Greg’s critics, chief among them Jon Krakauer. The program didn’t include even one of his defenders or supporters. Not one.
But mostly, the “60 Minutes” report left me confused. I had met Greg in 2000 in Pakistan when he assisted our expedition team with the tricky logistics of travel through the country’s Northwest tribal areas. On that and a subsequent trip to Pakistan, I had seen with my own eyes many of the CAI schools which the report claimed didn’t exist. In 2001, I interviewed Greg after 9-11 about his successful dealings with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. And really, I thought, there are so many easier ways to defraud people of their money than building hundreds of schools in the heart of fundamentalist Islam. What the hell is going on with this report?
That said, I hadn’t seen Greg in years and I didn’t actually know if the accusations were true or false. While the man I had interviewed didn’t appear to possess an ounce of guile or deceit, perhaps fame and money had since corrupted him. So, I decided to do my own investigation into what happened – with Greg, CAI, and the “60 Minutes” report. The result is my documentary, 3000 Cups of Tea which debuted in 2016.
I wish I could say that producing the film was the highpoint of my professional career. I wish I could say that through my exposé “60 Minutes” was forced to issue a rare retraction and an even rarer apology for getting the story and the man so wrong. And mostly I wish I could say Greg and his CAI came through the scandal unscathed and both are still flourishing in their heroic work of educating children and spreading peace “through books and not bombs.”
But that’s not what happened. What happened was that “60 Minutes” and Krakauer unleashed their hounds on me. Through the four years it took to finish the film, I received threats, including Krakauer telling me that I’d “be sorry” if I continued digging where he didn’t want me to dig. He called me a liar on NPR. CBS’s then Vice President of News, Jeff Fager, sent me a veiled Cease and Desist letter, questioning my credentials to challenge their reportage. My email accounts were hacked, one entirely erased of content. Most of my financial backing backed out. Nearly every festival I submitted the film to rejected it – several of the rare few which initially accepted the film, pulled it without explanation. One director said they would open the festival with 3000 Cups of Tea, a rare honor, but only if Greg agreed to appear and “answer to the charges against him.” Feeling like it was a setup, I declined.
And yet, the film has prevailed. It was completed in 2016, it was accepted into many international film festivals far from the reach of those who would silence its message, it won standing ovations and awards. And best of all, it makes me proud to this day.