April 3 not only was the seventh anniversary of the Washington Post‘s botched report about the mythical battlefield heroics of Jessica Lynch. The date also marked the 150th anniversary of the first run of the legendary Pony Express–a short-lived institution that is impressively steeped in myth.
As Christopher Corbett wrote in an engaging commentary published Friday in the Wall Street Journal:
“We remember the Pony Express as one of the most enduring and endearing of American stories, a tale of the frontier, a story of bold entrepreneurs, daring young horsemen, true riders of the purple sage and all that.
“In truth, the venture hemorrhaged money from day one, was doomed by technology (another particularly American story), lasted a mere 78 weeks, ruined its backers and then disappeared into what historian Bernard DeVoto called ‘the border land of fable.'”
Corbett noted: “It was all over in 18 months. The service was shut down in the flash of a telegrapher’s key when the transcontinental telegraph was completed in October 1861.”
But for years afterward, “the West was aswarm with old men who claimed to be ‘the last of the Pony Express riders,'” Corbett wrote.
The tall tales and exaggerations that grew up around the Pony Express were in large part promoted by the cinema and the entertainment industry–factors akin to those that contribute to the rise and tenacity of media-driven myths, which are stories about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, on close inspection, prove to be apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.
The filmmaker John Ford incorporated the Pony Express into the 1948 Western, Fort Apache, where, Corbett noted, “the brave rider thunders into the fort to bring news of Custer’s Last Stand, which, alas, took place some 15 years after the Pony stopped running.”
It’s faintly reminiscent of the classic cinematic treatment of the Watergate scandal: Easily the best-known Watergate movie is All the President’s Men, a screen adaptation of the best-selling book by the same title.
The cinematic version of All the President‘s characterized the book’s authors, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, as central and essential to the scandal’s unraveling.
The upshot of that misrepresentation, I write in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about media-driven myths, has been “to solidify and elevate the heroic-journalist myth” of Watergate, to give it dramatic power, and sustain it in the collective memory.
I further note in Getting It Wrong that the film offers an unmistakable and unambiguous statement about “the power and centrality of the press in Nixon’s fall. All the President’s Men allows no other interpretation: It was the work Woodward and Bernstein that set in motion far-reaching effects that brought about the first-ever resignation of a U.S. president,” Richard Nixon.
What’s more, the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate minimizes or ignores the more decisive contributions in Nixon’s fall by agencies and organizations besides the Washington Post.
In his fine commentary, Corbett noted “the person who immortalized the Pony was William Frederick Cody, or Buffalo Bill. (He also claimed he had been a rider. Not true.)
“The [Pony Express] fast-mail service may have lasted only a year and a half, but it thrived for four decades in Cody’s Wild West show, seen by millions in the U.S. and Europe. To add drama to his re-enactment, Buffalo Bill might throw in a war party of savage Indians chasing a heroic rider who always managed to escape.
“It would become one of the most enduring images of the Pony Express, but it was not true; the actual riders rarely tangled with Indians,” Corbett wrote, adding:
“Why would a Paiute want a two-week-old copy of Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune?”
Corbett noted in closing:
“If the Pony Express continues to thrill and baffle us, consider the words of an old horseman in western Nebraska who advised me when I expressed some concerns about the pedigree of this yarn. ‘We don’t lie out here,’ he explained kindly. ‘We just remember big.'”
“Remember big.” A great line. And it’s certainly applicable in understanding why media-driven myths can be so tenacious and enduring.