Name: Mary Alice Williams
Job: Anchor and writer, NJTV News.
Why she matters: Taking over the anchor chair this summer, Williams brings a new prominence to the evening news program on New Jersey’s preeminent public broadcasting station. And with positive early reviews, she brings an added credibility to the news show that is still getting its footing after WNET Public Broadcasting in New York took the helm in 2011.
Jersey pride: A longtime Montclair resident, Williams takes pains to be a cheerleader for the state and a news station it can call its own. “This is a chance for us to create a television station that for the first time is unique to New Jersey, that has our voice,” she said in an interview at the station’s offices at Montclair State University.
“I don’t want New Jersey to defined by New Jersey Housewives or Snookie.”
Her product, her point of view: “I write every word of the show, and I am trying to treat the audience as if they are educated. I am using a broader vocabulary, I am trying to use literary and historical references, because I know the people who are watching connect with that.”
“That’s how you build an audience, by treating them with respect.”
Vaunted resume: Williams was one of the early architects of CNN in the 1980s, including time as its New York bureau chief, and was one of the highest-ranking women in television news at the time. She also anchored NBC’s Weekend Today, and held prominent roles at Discovery, WNET, and CBS.
“I was very much part of a sea-change at the time,” she said of the advent of CNN and the cable news boom that would follow. “I was one of the kids, and we really had no idea what we were doing, but we knew it was critical to get everybody in the world sharing stories and witnessing events at the same time.”
Not all good changes: She described what she termed the politicization of many of the country’s media, and the chatter of its news coverage. “It’s not journalism, it’s not facts, it’s speculation. While debate is important and we have to have a collision of ideas in order to make decisions, it has become such a noisy arena that everyone’s in.”
Started early: Williams said she wanted to be a journalist as a teenager, back when she called it a highly respected profession. “Now we’re an inch and half above car salesmen. How did that happen? It happened because newsmen became ideologues.”
A high point: Covering the Johnstown Flood of 1977, Williams vividly recalls interviewing a homeowner, Mary Noonan, who lost everything in the floods. “And I watched her go through the five stages of grief, and end by picking up a baby blanket and folding it. There is a magnificence in human spirit that never gets tested for so many of us, but every so often you see it. It has been my privilege as a journalist to see that in Mary Noonan and so many others.”
Teaching the next generation: She has also been an assistant professor of journalism at SUNY-Purchase and Seton Hall.
No regrets: “I had a blast all the way through. Starting CNN was clearly a privilege beyond words, going to NBC was really fun, and being a professor was a blast. And being back here where I’m marrying my journalism chops with the teaching, I’m really lucky.”
Family life: A native Minnesotan and one of five children, including a brother who was her cameraman at CNN. She is the mother of three children, including twins in college. She married Julian Decter, a doctor, this summer. Between them, they have five children and four grandchildren. “We’re busy,” she said.