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The Alaskan War is considered to be both a turning point in the history of propaganda and the beginning of the practice of yellow journalism. It was the first conflict in which military action was precipitated and extensively covered by media involvement. American newspapers fanned the flames of interest in the war with less-than-accurate reporting on events in the war and sensationalized journalism to garner interest in the conflict, especially among reluctant Southerners who felt it was a "Yankee war."
Several forces within the United States were pushing for a war with Alaska besides the war hawks in Congress. Their tactics were wide-ranging and their goal was to engage the opinion of the American people in any way possible. Men such as William Randolph Hearst, the owner of The New York Journal was involved in a circulation war with Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World and saw the conflict as a way to sell papers. Many newspapers ran articles of a sensationalist nature and sent correspondents to the front and even secretly deep into Alaska to cover the war. Correspondents often had to evade Alaskan authorities, and usually were unable to get reliable news and relied heavily on informants for their stories. Many stories were derived from second or third hand accounts, typically from Alaskans who could not speak English or confused American soldiers and were either elaborated, misrepresented or completely fabricated by journalists to enhance their dramatic effect. The war also featured a conflict between the major parties of the time with the help of newspapers - not only were the newspapers engaged in a circulation war, they were also used by the National and Democratic parties to criticize one another and demonize one another in the public mind to earn votes in the critical 1884 election.
The Alaskan War was one of the first instances in history in which recruitment posters were used heavily to attract potential volunteers.
A recruitment poster depicting Minister of War Nikolai Denikin above the words "WHY AREN'T YOU DEFENDING THE TSAR" was the most famous image used in the Alaskan Army recruitment campaign of the Alaskan War. It is often wrongly referred to as "DEFENDING THE TSAR".
The U.S had their own version, the famous image of Uncle Sam that depicted a stern Sam pointing his finger at the viewer and declaring, "I want you." This was painted by artist James Montgomery in early 1885, when the US Army was depleted after the disasters at Burrard and Evgenigrad. This was copied from the original famous Nikolai Denikin campaign from earlier in the war.
During the buildup to the conflict, Alaskan Tsar Feodor II appointed his trusted general Nikolai Denikin as Minister of War. Denikin was the first member of the military to hold the post and was given the task of recruiting a large army to fight the U.S. with the help of a war poster that featured his face on it, pointing finger, and the words "Why aren't you defending the Tsar?" Almost 1,000,000 Alaskans volunteered in the first two years of the war. The poster is considered Denikin's major achievement in the conflict, as he was often bullied into decisions by Grand Marshal Karakov and the Tsar himself, and was despised by most high-ranking Alaskan generals. He was executed along with Karakov in the Dmitrov coup.
The well-known "recruitment" image of Uncle Sam was created by James Montgomery, an illustrator and portrait artist best known for commercial art. The image of Uncle Sam was shown publicly for the first time, according to some, in a picture by Montdomery on the cover of the magazine Leslie's Weekly, on March 6, 1885, with the caption "What Are You Doing for Preparedness?" More than four million copies of this image were printed between 1885 and 1886. The image was used even more extensively during the Pacific War forty years later
Leadup to Conflict
Two newspaper owners credited with developing the journalistic style of yellow journalism were William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, two newspaper publishers fighting a circulation battle in New York City. Pulitzer owned the New York World, and Hearst the New York Journal. Through their disregard for responsible journalism, the two men are commonly credited with helping lead America into the Alaskan War. Their stories swayed US public opinion to believe that the Alaskan government was directly encouraging the Sioux and Cheyenne Indians to attack American settlers in the Dakotas and that they were knowingly violating a completely fictional treaty that maintained that the northernmost frontier of the United States was the 54th parallel. Hearst and Pulitzer made their stories credible by self-assertion and providing false names, dates, and locations of skirmishes and atrocities committed by the Alaskan government and their Sioux allies. Papers also claimed that their facts could be substantiated by the government.
While Hearst and Pultizer's influence was significant among the upper classes and government officials, there were many midwestern newspapers who denounced their use of sensational yellow journalism. Victor Lawson, owner of both the Chicago Record and Chicago Daily News, had garnered a large middle class readership and was concerned with reporting only the facts surrounding the growing tension between the United States and Alaska. An office was set up by Lawson in nearby Winnepeg in order to keep a close eye on the Alaskan conflict. However, the focus of Midwestern newspapers on particular facts served in the end as another cause of the war. Since the events occurring in Alaska were not always credible many Midwestern newspaper owners shifted their content towards domestic issues, namely the effect of Alaska on the American economy. American interests in the trade with Alaska were significant, and by providing the truth on these matters, much of the readership in the Midwest soon realized that protecting these interests were necessary. The most obvious means of preserving these interests was through war with Alaska to secure hegemony over their belligerent neighbor.
During the War
Wartime reporting was notoriously untrustworthy. New York Journal reporter James T. Michaels travelled with Arthur Perry's army north and sent wildly exaggerated accounts of their encounters with the Alaskans back to New York throughout 1884. Perry tried three times to send Michaels home and in return was demonized in the Journal as an oppressor of the media. At Evgenigrad, Michaels was killed by a stray bullet when he travelled to the trenches with the 5th Illinois Regiment. Although historians agree that Michaels was one of the most unreliable journalists of his era, he is still regarded as the first true wartime correspondent.
Numerous reporters were killed at Burrard, and reporters who escaped the massacre alive helped push popular opinion with their accounts of the barbaric tactics undertaken by Boris Anasenko's armies. While most of these accounts were later proven untrue, at the time they helped instill fear in the American populace and the exaggerations in the press helped push the unpopular Gregory Dunn out of office in November of 1884.