James Ottaway’s Dow Jones Odyssey

071607 gillette web James Ottaways Dow Jones Odyssey

On a recent Saturday, James Ottaway Jr., the retired newspaper executive, attended a wedding in Rhode Island. The bride, a young artist named Xu Jin, was a longtime friend of Mr. Ottaway’s.

Years ago—long before Mr. Ottaway gained national attention for publicly opposing Rupert Murdoch’s ongoing attempts to buy Dow Jones–he had received a phone call from Bob Bernstein, one of the founders of Human Rights Watch. Mr. Bernstein told Mr. Ottaway that the daughter of one of the longest-held political prisoners in China would soon be matriculating to Bard College where Mr. Ottaway was a trustee. Could he help Ms. Xu settle in?

Over the years, Mr. Ottaway and his wife Mary had helped numerous foreign students come to the United States to study at Bard. Along the way, they had done whatever they could to make the young foreigners feel at home in rural New York. They had taken them skiing. Bought them dinner. Arranged field trips. Gone on hikes in the mountains. Mr. Ottaway told Mr. Bernstein that he would be happy to help out.

In the coming years, the Ottaways looked after Ms. Xu. In the meantime, back in China, her father Xu Wenli remained in prison for the crime of supporting democracy and publishing a pro-democracy journal called the April Fifth Forum.

On Christmas Eve, 2002, the Chinese government finally released Mr. Xu. That night he and his wife jumped on a plane to the United States. When they arrived in New York they had no place to stay. So their daughter appealed, once again, to the generosity of the Ottaways. While the family regrouped, Mr. Ottaway put them up in his apartment on East 9th Street.

“I have a personal connection with the effects of news censorship in China,” said Mr. Ottaway recently. “That’s the reason I got particularly worried about Murdoch owning Dow Jones.”

It was several days after the wedding, and Mr. Ottaway was on the phone from his office in New Paltz, N.Y., ruminating on the subjects of censorship, democracy, archeology, Rupert Murdoch, hiking, Homer, and the onetime imprisonment of his friend–the erstwhile father of the bride.

“At the time, you couldn’t find out that he was in jail if you didn’t read the foreign press,” said Mr. Ottaway. “You couldn’t find out from a Murdoch outlet in China, Star TV, which is completely censored for any news that would disturb the Chinese government. They just parrot the Chinese communist government propaganda line. To me, that’s disgusting. It has a human impact. It puts people in jail. It gets people murdered.”

“When you meet someone who has been in jail for sixteen years, it’s no longer an abstraction,” he added.

Over the past several months, ever since News Corp.’s bid for Dow Jones became public on May 1, Mr. Ottaway has become a thorn in the giant paw of the Mr. Murdoch’s ambition. From the get go, Mr. Ottaway announced that his family, which controls 6.2 percent of the Class B controlling “super” shares of Dow Jones, wouldn’t be selling to the media carnivore from down under. Behind the scenes, he whispered his misgivings into the Bancroft family ears. Publicly, he questioned the members of the family who were pushing for a buyout.

“If the Bancroft Family has decided that it may not be able to protect the independence of Dow Jones and its crown jewel, the Wall Street Journal, as a stand alone company in a more competitive media future,” Mr. Ottaway wrote in one of his publicly released statements, “then I hope they will refuse Murdoch’s offer and find a more trustworthy guardian of the high standards of journalism the family has heroically protected for 100 years.”

Mr. Ottaway’s faith in the heroics of good journalism can be traced back to his family dinner table. He grew up in a newspaper family in the small town of Endwell, N.Y., along the southern border of the state, just outside of Binghamton. His father owned the Endicott Daily Bulletin, a newspaper in a nearby town. At age sixteen, Ottaway the Younger went to work reporting for his father’s daily, writing features, covering accidents, and chronicling small town life. “I loved it,” recalled Mr. Ottaway. “I thought it was very exciting.”