“I realized what a rare and precious thing we have with our free press in America,” said Mr. Ottaway. “Most Americans don’t understand how precious and unusual that is.”
Long before Mr. Murdoch found himself on the business end of Mr. Ottaway’s high mindedness, various leaders and presidents elect from around the world got caught in a similar position. Vladimir Putin, Costa Rican president Miguel Angel, President George Bush—all were Ottawayed, at one point or another, for their perceived shortcomings on issues affecting the freedom of the press.
Marilyn Greene, the former executive director of the World Press Freedom Committee recently described Mr. Ottaway was a man of strong integrity with little tolerance for moral deviations. “There are many gray areas and fine lines in the world of press freedom issues, and sometimes it’s very difficult to know which way to go in taking a position,” said Ms. Greene. “With Jim, anytime anyone makes any kind of compromise in that area—and I’m sure this is where China and Murdoch come in—he just has no tolerance for it.”
“He can be very tough,” added Ms. Greene. “He has a very strong sense of right and wrong. And a very strong spine. He’s not afraid to speak out.”
Ms. Greene fondly remembered their time working together. “He is also a very eclectic person,” she said. “He has many interests. He goes trekking in Nepal. He’s very interested in Ancient Greek archeology. He reads voraciously. He’s a skier. He’s a runner. There’s not once inch of fat on his body. He’s very careful about what he eats and drinks. He’s very health conscious.”
Now that he is retired, Mr. Ottaway said he likes to spend his time dabbling in archeology and reading books about ancient civilizations. One of his greatest pleasures, he said, was reading out loud with his wife, particularly new translations of the Odyssey. Recently, Mr. Ottaway began studying ancient Greek at Bard, where he has been translating—what else?—the Odyssey.
“I discovered as I got older that it’s one of the great stories of all time,” said Mr. Ottaway. “And as I’m discovering now it’s great poetry. Now that I’m free to do what I want with my life, I find it very satisfying.”
Leon Botstein, the music director of the American Symphony Orchestra and the president of Bard, greatly admires Mr. Ottaway’s rectitude. “He’s extremely disciplined in his personal habits,” said Mr. Botstein. “He’s a scrupulously modest person. He flies coach, takes the subway. He’s a person where the wealth is extremely discreetly separated from the conduct of his lifestyle. He’s not a guy interested in PR and grandiosity.”
“He’s a real devotee of history with enormous curiosity, tremendous love of literature and language,” added Mr. Botstein. “He supports a lot of our human rights activities, and a lot of our international rights activities. Freedom of the press is a personal matter for him. The amazing thing is that he’s acting completely against his own self-interest here. Murdoch is threatening to make him wealthier than he already is.”
For the time being, Mr. Ottaway continues to hope that the Bancrofts will join him in resisting the siren song of Rupert Murdoch. Last week, Brad Greenspan, the founder of MySpace and Ronald Burkle, the 117th wealthiest man in America, met with a delegation from Dow Jones to discuss the possibility of perhaps purchasing a part of the company. Mr. Ottaway, for one, said he didn’t expect much to come of it.
“I don’t think they have made a very credible or persuasive proposal from the few details I’ve heard,” said Mr. Ottaway. “Apparently they did not make a terribly good impression on the Dow Jones negotiating committee in their meeting two days ago. I’m not very optimistic about that.”
Mr. Ottaway eventually brought the interview to a close. “I think I better stop,” said Mr. Ottaway. “I’ve got to do some work. I’ve got to go save Dow Jones.”