Nicholas Kristof's column in the New York Times this morning reads like a defense lawyer's closing remarks on a controversial case. The defendant, Greg Mortensen, authored a book that some say is fabricated, fake, terrible and wrong. The prosecution, a 60 Minutes-Jon Krakauer tag team, are attempting to bring down a Nobel Peace Prize nominee over a few incongruent details that Mortensen claims are attributable to "literary license."
Kristof makes his case for Mortensen based not on whether or not the allegations are true but rather because discrediting Mortensen and his organization will harm the children of Afghanistan:
As we sift the truth of these allegations, let’s not allow this uproar to obscure that larger message of the possibility of change. Greg’s books may or may not have been fictionalized, but there’s nothing imaginary about the way some of his American donors and Afghan villagers were able to put aside their differences and prejudices and cooperate to build schools--and a better world.
When you look at the step back to look at the big picture, Kristof's argument almost makes sense. After all, even if Mortensen was wrong in botching the details of his travails, he was politically right and morally right about the approach to progress in that region. And even if you're "deeply troubled"--as Kristoff says he is--about how only 41 percent of Mortensen's school-building charity funds went to building schools while the rest went to pay for chartered jets and stuff, don't stress out. It was probably just "utterly disorganized" Mortensen's errors as a rookie CEO, says Kristof. Did we mention that Mortensen, whom the columnist has invited over for lunch and "extolled" in the Times, was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize?
All things told, Kristof's plea for his "good friend" Greg Mortensen ends up sounding rather thin and obvious. The basic point about remembering Mortensen's achievements over his recently exposed shortfalls points to a narrative with which we're all familiar: People who write books for a good cause aren't really evil people even when they mess up factual details. The "means to an end" cliché works just as well as citing Immanuel Kant.
Business Insider's Russ Baker made an indisputable point a couple of days ago that sets this straw man on fire, though. As much as we may write Morgensen off as being well-intentioned, the facts point to truly dubious dealings on his now very well-funded nonprofit's behalf. (Heck, Mortensen's heartwarming-if-fake story even convinced Barack Obama to donate to the cause.) But let's take the book at face value. It's become a propaganda machine to make America's once-reviled presence in Afghanistan acceptable to the American public and columnist Thomas Friedman alike. Baker offers a different, more serious and inevitably more moral argument than Kristof does:
We need to examine the uses of major media for propaganda purposes, and what responsibility, if any, host publications have to consider the impact of giving such propaganda their platform, without any due diligence. Vietnam, after all, was not really all that long ago. And, as CBS noted in its report, those who knew Mortenson well, including staff, board members, and others, had been saying for many years that something was deeply wrong.
Inevitably, all this new publicity must be great for book sales. And you know the industry needs it.