04/21/11 — Wayne County Reads not worried about effect of controversy

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Wayne County Reads not worried about effect of controversy

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on April 21, 2011 1:46 PM

Organizers with Wayne County Reads are watching closely as the book the group's 2010 campaign was based around has come under fire following a "60 Minutes" report Sunday.

However, Matt Shaw, a member of the organizing committee since Reads began, said the local organization doesn't feel the claims that parts of the book "Three Cups of Tea" were exaggerated or fabricated necessarily casts a shadow over the program.

The controversy stems from a "60 Minutes" investigation that found the book full of inaccuracies, and that the co-author Greg Mortenson's charitable organization, the Central Asia Institute, is taking credit for building schools that were either built by other groups or that don't exist at all.

Specifically, the report calls into question claims that Mortenson was inspired to build schools in Afghanistan after stumbling into the rural Pakistani village of Korphe where he was cared for after becoming lost while mountain climbing, as well as claims that he was captured by the Taliban.

In an email statement, Mortenson said he welcomes the discussion, but that he stands by his book and his work, and that while "the '60 Minutes' program may appear to ask simple questions ... the answers are often complex, not easily encapsulated in 10-second sound bites."

Still, Wayne County Reads organizers say they are disappointed the book has been called into question.

"We're definitely concerned about it -- concerned that the book may not be what it claimed to be," Shaw said. "But there's not really much we can do about it at this point."

Besides, he added, the book was only a small part of what Wayne County Reads 2010 was all about.

"A lot of our program was based on the military's experiences in Afghanistan," Shaw said. "We wanted to build a bridge between the community and the base, and Afghanistan is something that a lot of military have experience with."

Among the events last year were programs and roundtable discussions with airmen, college professors and even U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry as the program sought to inform people, including through children's programs, about the country's customs, traditions and even food. The Arts Council of Wayne County also tied in a special exhibit of photographs taken by servicemen in Afghanistan.

"It was more than just Greg Mortenson and 'Three Cups of Tea'," Shaw said. "'Three Cups of Tea' was just kind of a bridge to get there."

It also, he said, was a book that had been on the New York Times bestseller list and one that many people in the community had asked the group to focus on.

"We're always going to be open to what the community wants to do," he said. "It this was a case in which it was totally made up, that'd be one thing, but I think even his critics would agree that he's done a lot of good -- even if he's maybe exaggerated it."

Still, Wayne County Reads Chairwoman Liz Meador said, while the organization will be careful about the books it chooses to focus on, to a certain extent it has to take these books "on faith."

"We do have to lean on the publisher," said Jane Rustin, committee member and director of the Wayne County Public Library. "This is national news. It's not just Wayne County that was surprised by it. I don't think this will have any sort of chilling effect. I think we're likely to pick a fiction book this year just because we like to alternate, but it certainly won't be any sort of a reaction to this.

"I think the community grew quite a bit as a result of Wayne County Reads, but you hope this would never happen."