THE LIFE AND DEATH OF THE PRESS BARONS by Piers Brendon

THE LIFE AND DEATH OF THE PRESS BARONS

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Character sketches of eccentric British and American press lords from James Gordon Bennett I to Rupert Murdoch--ostensibly, the last of that exotic, flamboyant, tyrannical but (ahah!) independent breed. Is there a connection, then, between personal eccentricity and a free-wheeling press? Not really: early on, Brendon identifies financial independence as ""the sine qua non of press freedom."" Did these flaming individualists, who mostly did attain (US) or enjoy (Brit.) financial independence, exercise editorial independence? Mostly, no. Bennett's New York Herald ""was never more than a day in advance of its readers""; John Delane's London Times ""became the megaphone of the middle class."" Even the Pulitzer and Hearst papers, ""bent on popular appeal, were reflecting rather than directing public opinion""; even Lord Northcliffe--the London Evening News, Daily Mail, Times, Mirror, Observer--had ""little impact on events."" Only Horace Greeley, by Brendon's reckoning, ""often strove to turn the tide"" and came all-too-close to wielding political power. In fact Brendon, who dotes on contrast, inconsistency, incongruity (""conservative populism,"" ""too captive and too free""), is himself inconsistent--now touting press independence, now decrying press influence. . . but largely, whatever his thematic lunges, cataloguing the aberrations of his ""villainous heroes"" (one of whom, Northcliffe, also appeared in Brendon's 1980 Eminent Edwardians). Supposedly, unpersuasively: ""unfettered power in their own domains. . . fostered weird excesses of behavior and bizarre distortions of character."" At any rate Americans acquainted with James Gordon Bennett II's affronts to decency, the elderly Joseph Pulitzer's padded yacht, or the young E. W. Scripps' ""carnival of lust"" can now learn about the peccadilloes of their British counterparts--like W. T. Stead, of the Pall Mall Gazette and the Review of Reviews, personal exposÉs of child prostitution and first-hand word of ""sexual ecstasy behind the veil."" Brendon does have some fresh material on Hearst, while his wrap-up on Murdoch is mercifully free of personal idiosyncracies. Otherwise: much spice, little substance.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1983
Publisher: Atheneum