“I call things as I see them. It’s a nice little thing to be able to do with your day,” Peyser said evenly. “I believe equal rights breeds equal responsibility. If you break the law, whether it be to murder your children or lie about a stock trade, you can’t just say, ‘Stop picking on me because I’m a woman.’ I find that very offensive.” Particularly if you’re the kind of woman whose name stands alone on the mortgage, who spent a career breaking rocks in a newsroom that has known its share of belching sexism, where, not incidentally, liberal politics are scoffed at. Peyser’s clear-polished fingertips, “well-tended” like hapless Peter Bacanovic’s, wandered up to her chin, dimpled like Frances McDormand’s, as her husband quickly checked in to let her know he was going to move the car.
On the sparsely decorated wall over his shoulder was a Broadway poster for August Strindberg’s Dance of Death. “Two people stuck on an island in a bad marriage,” said Peyser, who does note that her own parents and her husband’s never divorced, whereas friends whose parents did get divorced were screwed up. “What my parents taught me and Mark’s parents are demonstrating today is that people go into marriage with all these expectations that it’s going to be hearts and flowers until death, and it’s not like that. It’s given me and my husband a more realistic view.”
Peyser’s Austrian mother and German math-professor father were refugees from Hitler; they met while both were serving in the Israeli army during the 1948 war. After marrying, the Peysers moved to Bay Terrace, Queens, a predominantly Jewish middle-income development where her mother, who had a Jackie Kennedy pageboy hairdo and did not drive, could walk to the local shopping center.
Peyser was acutely aware that she had foreign-born parents. To this day, she wishes her mother would lose the accent. “I always respected and admired them, but their value system was a little different. They weren’t very materialistic. My father was very educated, whereas a lot of my friends’ fathers were in business. We had an old car, not a new car.” Peyser’s kibbutz-raised mother, who liked to talk politics and philosophy, always thought the neighbors a bit vulgar. “It was ladies wearing mink coats in the summer and stuff like that,” Peyser said.
In high school in the seventies, Peyser and her friends had to take the bus to Flushing and then the 7 train to Manhattan to catch Led Zeppelin and the Kinks at the Garden. “My mother was about opera and Mozart, and I was all about rock and roll, much to her chagrin,” said Peyser.
Peyser nicknamed Christiane Amanpour the “CNN war slut,” prompting a complaint from Amanpour and a rare apology from Rupert Murdoch himself. Peyser was hardly cowed. Less than a year later, she was calling Amanpour a “Palestinian propagandist.”
Her parents’ politics were liberal, a little socialist even. “I was a lefty back then,” said Peyser, who enrolled at SUNY–New Paltz. “I remember sitting in women’s-studies classes and being handed a load of shit. It was always somebody else’s fault. Treating people like children who aren’t responsible for their actions—and I would say that about ethnic minorities, too.” Peyser kept getting fired from her waitressing gigs, like at that seafood restaurant where “some wealthy guy complained because he thought I was neglecting his table.”
She had better luck stringing at a local paper for 50 cents an inch, and after graduation she won a temporary assignment at the AP’s Albany bureau. Not asked to stay on, she snared a job in the West Virginia bureau. “Mines were closing in Appalachia, and there was like a 90 percent unemployment rate in certain towns, and the governor was named Jay Rockefeller.”
“There were sophisticated people there and actual universities,” she said, laughing, “but in Appalachia, people lived in hollows, so they never saw more than 40 degrees of sunlight. They had satellite television, but they had no movie theaters, no malls.”
After a brief and miserable detour into television news at CNN in Atlanta, she arrived at the Tampa Tribune, the arch-nemesis of the Pulitzer Prize–winning progressive-liberal St. Petersburg Times. “The Times thinks it’s hot stuff, but the Tribune breaks more hot stories,” said Peyser, adding that “the Times is backed by the Poynter Institute, a lot of people with big degrees sitting around and pontificating.”
Peyser wound up on courthouse detail in Polk County, the kind of place where somebody in Trailer One is always getting in a fight with Trailer Two. “Everybody was armed,” she said. A barfly’s body was found in a Dumpster, and that troubled her. “So many crimes of passion, so many people shooting girls, and why? There was this whole macho thing going on that I didn’t really relate to but which fascinated me.”