Paul Jacobs, 59, a journalistic whose interests ranged from corruption in the labor movement to politics in the Middle East, died Tuesday in a San Francisco hospital. He had suffered from cancer.

Mr. Jacobs described himself as a radical. He was Trotskyite in the 1930s and worked for many years in the labor movement. At the end of his life he was a Socialist. He never abandoned the cause of people he regarded as underprivileged, and he never abandoned his resistance to what he regarded as unwarranted government infringement of individual rights.

Mr. Jacobs' friends described him as a humanist, wit, a raconteur, a gadfly and an intellectual. His friends included Frank Mankiewicz, the columnist; the late Robert M. Hutchins, former president of the University of Chicago and then head of the Fund for the Republic; Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panther Party, with whom Mr. Jacobs once ran for political office; numerous foreign leaders, including Israelis, Arabs and Cubans; Max Ascoli, late editor of the old "Reporter" magazine, and Saul Landau of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington.

Mr. Jacobs was a Jew who saw merit in the Palestinian position in the Middle East.He was a reporter who found that the government would mislead the public before "investigative reporting" came into vogue. He could be provocative without being offensive.

He was born into a prosperous family in New York City but refused to avail himself of such middle-class advantages as a college education. In fact, his calling card identified him as "H.S.G.," meaning "high school graduate."

In addition to being the author and co-author of several books, including an autobiography called "Is Curly Jewish?." Mr. Jacobs contributed to such publications as The Washington Post, The Reporter magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Ramparts, and Mother Jones, a magazine he helped found two years ago in San Francisco.

His stories included the first extensive exposes of the dangers of radioactive fallout as the result of the U.S. nuclear testing program in Nevada. These stories appeared in The Reporter in 1957, and accused the former Atomic Energy Commission of concealing dangers of the program from the public.

More recently, he wrote about the dangers of a herbicide and defoliant called TCDD, or "Agent Orange," in Mississippi, where the U.S. Navy had a store of it, and in Seveso, Italy, where an explosion had released a quantity of the substance into the atmosphere.(TABLE) s a correspondent at the time of his death. In a recent interview with the Pacific News Service, Mr. Jacobs suggested that one cause of the cancer that led on his death may have been his exposure to radioactive material in areas declared safe by the AEC in 1957. He also said his exposure to "Agent Orange" may have been a contributing cause.(COLUMN)On another occasion, he made a documentary film for public television about the nutritional value of dog food compared to some foods eaten by humans. To make the point that dog food was more nutritious, he ate a can of dog food on live television.(COLUMN)But several of Mr. Jacobs' admirers exphasize that his major contribution was in trying to explain what is often regarded as "radical" to what is generally known as "the establishment." His success in doing this lay in the humanity and humor with which he went about his work, according to many who know him.(COLUMN)"Most of all he liked to defend the rights of poor people and minorities against the incursions of the state," said Saul Landau of the Institute for Policy Studies. "He was called a critic of society. That is a lie. He was a great defender of society. He was a critic of the state." Roderick MacLeish, a television commentator, once wrote that a book by Mr. Jacobs about hte Middle East was "a valuable memoir in and of itself because it was obviously written by a man of value, an exasperated humanist who persists in his own belief that men can be good despite themselves."(COLUMN)Mrs. Jacobs' wife, Ruth, died several weeks ago following a heart attack. He is survived by a brother, Cliff, of Los Angeles. (END TABLE) CAPTION: (TABLE) Picture, PAUL JACOBS (END TABLE)