As of yesterday, Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson is—at least legally—in the clear. The writer and philanthropist’s best-selling memoir (and its follow-up, Stones into Schools) has been tainted for almost exactly a year by accusations of falsehood: Last April, a 60 Minutes report and an investigation by journalist Jon Krakauer both alleged that Mortenson had fabricated portions of his book, a tale of how he took on the mission of building schools in Central Asia, and that he had improperly used funds from his charity, the Central Asia Institute, to promote the book. In the ensuing months, several readers who felt bilked by having bought the book filed lawsuits, but an Illinois suit against the Institute and Mortenson was dropped in July, and now a federal judge in Montana has dismissed the remaining charges of fraud and racketeering.
The Montana suit was filed May 5, 2011, based on the claim that Mortensen and his publisher had conspired to make him seem like a hero in order to sell books and raise money, to the tune of 4 million copies and several times that number in dollars. U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon did not rule on whether or not Three Cups of Tea is the truth but said that the lawsuit was too vague. Mortenson and his allies say that the book is generally true, with the exception of some timeline compression. (A separate lawsuit about the management of Central Asia Institute funds was settled for $1 million last month.)
The AP reported this morning that Mortenson had been in touch to issue a statement, saying that the accusations had been “overwhelming and devastating.” His publisher, Penguin, added that, now that there was no ongoing lawsuit, the defendants could finally speak out and the publishers could look into the claims for themselves.
Haddon’s full opinion is linked on Jon Krakauer’s Byliner blog, and the judge makes an interesting point: the plaintiffs say they suffered financial loss for paying “full price for a nonfiction book when it was fiction” but the judge notes that they never address whether they would have purchased the same book as fiction (presumably for the same price of about $15). The monetary value of a true story versus an imagined one has been discussed in court before (a 2007 settlement over James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces promised reimbursements) but it hasn’t yet been settled—and now it looks like Three Cups of Tea won’t be the book to do so.
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