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Press barons, sailing, 21st-century life, and more; Press Barons -- a driving force; The Life and Death of the Press Barons, by Piers Brendon. New York: Atheneum. 288 pp. $14.95.

The press barons of American and English journalism are in some ways akin to the robber barons of 19th-century commerce: unscrupulous, exploitative, eccentric, and now almost extinct. Yet as Piers Brendon notes, without them the free press might never have become the driving force it is today.

Prior to the 1830s, newspapers were mostly ''servile little propaganda sheets.'' The great contribution of the press barons was to establish a tradition of fierce editorial independence. ''It is true that the energy which the press barons unleashed to turn their newspapers into a profitable private business could seldom be harnessed to make them also a disinterested public service,'' Brendon writes. ''But safety lay in diversity.''

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While differing dramatically in political viewpoint, the press barons assembled in this colorful history are united by their burning curiosity and boundless egos. At the Los Angeles Times we see Harrison Gray Otis, in full military uniform, imperiously drilling his employees in the use of rifles and shotguns. At the Pall Mall Gazette we see William Thomas Stead dining on cooked mice and taking dictation from the departed spirit of Catherine the Great.

Beyond the idiosyncrasies, we see the barons' great innovations: the modern editorial page, the first foreign correspondents, the coining of the term ''human interest,'' and so forth. And we see how the era of individualism gradually gave way to today's faceless communications conglomerates - with a few notable exceptions such as Rupert Murdoch. But if you think the press is becoming a bit too pompous about its Role in Society, you'll enjoy Brendon's reminder of its rambunctious origins.

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