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.”
In the mid-50’s after graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy, Mr. Ottaway matriculated to Yale University where he majored in European history, arts, and letters. But he spent the bulk of his time writing for the Yale Daily News. His senior year, he was elected chairman of the paper. Despite the prestige of the position, he did not join Skull and Bones or any other senior society.
“I created my own senior society by getting married between my junior and senior years to my wife Mary,” said Mr. Ottaway. “I thought I was busy enough on Sunday nights.”
Years ago, Robert Semple Jr., the Pulitzer-Prize winning editorial page editor for the New York Times, worked alongside Mr. Ottaway at the Yale Daily News. He recalled Mr. Ottaway as being preternaturally grown up.
“He was quite spectacularly mature for his age,” said Mr. Semple recently. “He had a highly developed moral conscious. He was a good editor. He wrote very sensible editorials. He took sensible positions. This was not a radical era in which to be in New Haven.”
According to Mr. Semple, Mr. Ottaway has never been one to dillydally with frivolous concerns.
“He’s not going to waste a lot of time watching the All-Star Game like I do,” said Mr. Semple. “Bill Borders [a longtime reporter and editor for The New York Times] once said of Jim Ottaway that he breaths different air than you and me. In other words, he’s a very noble fellow.”
Mr. Borders concurred.
“Jim was always an absolute symbol of right thinking, rectitude, and journalistic standards and ethics,” said Mr. Borders, who also worked with Mr. Ottaway at the Yale Daily News in the late ‘50s. “And that was when we were all kids. Now we’re not kids anymore. He’s absolutely on the same side he was on in 1959.”
“His journalistic and ethical standards were then, what they are now,” added Mr. Borders. “I’d have known 45 years ago that he would take a principled stand on behalf of the Wall Street Journal against Rupert Murdoch. Jim said it better than I could, but Murdoch symbolizes everything that’s wrong and threatening about journalism. Jim now is resisting it just as much as I would have predicted all those years ago.”
In 1960, Mr. Ottaway graduated from college. Afterwards, he did what everyone expected. He went to work for his father. “Journalism seemed to me like the most exciting thing you could do to earn a living,” said Mr. Ottaway.
Ten years later, Dow Jones purchased the Ottaway group of community newspapers. Mr. Ottaway the Younger supported the merger. “I thought it would be very exciting to work with some of the best journalists in the world and that it would expand my horizons,” said Mr. Ottaway. “I thought I would learn a lot more about the business. They would help us grow much faster than we could as a small family company, which they certainly did.”
Mr. Ottaway worked for Dow Jones in various capacities for the next 36 years. Last year, after serving 17 years on the company’s board of directors, he retired.
During one stretch of his career, Mr. Ottaway worked as the president of the Dow Jones international group of publications, which included the European and Asian editions of The Wall Street Journal. At one point, the government of Singapore banned the Dow Jones publications for being distributed in their country. The prohibition further inflamed Mr. Ottaway’s belief in a free press. Not to mention his missionary tendencies. In 1996, he became the chairman of the World Press Freedom Committee, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the liberty of the press at home and abroad.
“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.”
Follow Felix Gillette via RSS.