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Publishing Industry Has Its Share of Scandal

April 18, 2011

We’re used to seeing an impressive amount of scandal and squabbling in the financial sector. The latest includes a report from the FDIC Quarterly, featured in our Dodd-Frank Tracker, announcing that Lehman Brothers creditors might have recovered 97 cents on every $1 of claims if the government had been able to seize the firm and carry out a structured sale of assets. And now Illinois Senator Richard Durbin has lashed out at JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon for his criticism of the proposed capping of interchange fees: “There is no need for you to threaten your customers with higher fees when you and your bank are already making money hand-over-fist,” Durbin wrote. Further examples, of course, abound.

But now the publishing world seems to be exhibiting similar behavior: Viking Press, a US publishing company owned by Penguin Group, was put in the spotlight yesterday by a CBS News report that calls into question many elements of the best-selling memoir Three Cups of Tea. The book was written by Greg Mortenson, who oversees the Central Asia Institute, a charitable organization that builds schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

CBS reports that a central narrative in the book, which describes Mortenson’s first encounter with a village in Pakistan, may be inaccurate; it further points out that the majority of the Institute’s funds have been spent in the US than on schools. Mortenson has denied all allegations, standing by both the content of his books and the work of his organization.

But Viking, which has published authors from John Steinbeck to Jack Kerouac to Garrison Keillor, must now undergo a serious fact-checking mission to determine the accuracy of Mortenson’s memoirs. Otherwise, Three Cups of Tea may join the ranks of costly and embarrassing publishing ventures that have mislabeled books that should be categorized as “fiction.”

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