Two media experts from the St. Louis area are offering different perspectives on the journalistic integrity of a recent 60 Minutes broadcast questioning the truthfulness of bestselling author Greg Mortenson.
Mortenson has been invited to speak at spring commencement ceremonies at in Clayton. A school representative said earlier this week that whether the invitation will still stand following the TV report.
Repps Hudson is an adjunct instructor in journalism and international affairs at Washington University. He worked for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for 22 years and has used Mortenson's second book, Stones into Schools, as assigned reading in a class he teaches titled NGOs in the International System. NGO stands for non-governmental organization.
Hudson's impression of the story: "This is 'gotcha' journalism."
Up until Sunday, Hudson said, he hadn't watched 60 Minutes in years. He considers television an unreliable medium and prefers to be informed using newspapers and newspapers' websites. But after a couple of students and his wife alerted him to the upcoming piece, he decided to tune in.
The 60 Minutes piece establishes a good guy-bad guy narrative in which Mortenson is the bad guy and author Jon Krakauer is the good guy, Hudson said. Among the comments Krakauer makes about some of Mortenson's stories regarding his work to promote education in Afghanistan and Pakistan: "It's a beautiful story, and it's a lie."
Hudson questions why Krakauer decided to speak with 60 Minutes. Many of the questions raised in the piece center around Mortenson's first book, Three Cups of Tea, which was published five years ago.
He acknowledges that Mortenson did "a poor job" of responding to the TV show, but he calls the report's footage of the author slipping out a door following a book signing "surreptitious." He said the standards of verification and fairness used by the show were far lower than his own.
"It reminds me of the National Enquirer or some other type of tabloid," Hudson said.
Had 60 Minutes uncovered evidence of financial mismanagement by Mortenson, it would have been a story, Hudson said. But he indicated that the report provided scant evidence of any such activity.
"You can assess these things," Hudson said. Websites such as charitynavigator.com offer tools for people interested in learning how money is spent by NGOs such as the Central Asia Institute, which Mortenson co-founded.
Many NGOs play to people's emotions, he said, and it's feasible that such a group could become so successful that it outgrows its ability to manage itself well. But Mortenson's organization is larger than himself. The Pentagon has used him to explain how to work with people on a local level in other countries, and he has helped many people.
Hudson said he'll likely continue using Mortenson's Stones into Schools in class. He won't teach the class for another year, which will give him time to see how the situation plays out.
If Mortenson didn't tell it exactly right, "It doesn't detract from what he's done," Hudson said.
Eileen Solomon doesn't see it that way.
The Webster University professor teaches in the school of communications. Previously, she worked for more than a decade in television and radio in cities such as St. Louis and Miami.
"To do an effective investigative story, a news organization needs to check the facts and be sure to get all sides," Solomon said in an email interview. "CBS seems to have extensively researched this story and talked to people who were involved. Mortenson has now admitted to some 'compression' and misstatement of facts. The ambush of Mortenson at the book signing looks bad, but it was an effort to represent his argument.
"The reporter claims CBS had asked for access directly and had been denied. Most news stories are complex, but when one side is unwilling to address the complexities, blaming the media for being unfair seems like an easy out."
Solomon said news comes in a mediated format both in television and in print. She thinks audiences know that.
"Whether audiences believe one news provider over another is often based on the beliefs they hold before they consume information," Solomon said.
The 60 Minutes report left her wondering how Mortenson would respond.
"I might do a follow up on the repercussions, since Montana is now taking a look at the charity," said Solomon, referring to the Central Asia Institute.