Nobody Knows Religion Quite Like Peggy Fletcher Stack
If you’ve picked up a copy of the Salt Lake Tribune in the last 26 years, you know Peggy Fletcher Stack’s name. She’s been covering religion for the paper since 1991 taking on a variety of topics, but mostly the LDS Church. Sometimes Stack refers to Salt Lake City as the "Vatican of Mormonism."
To celebrate this milestone of 26 years on the beat, along with covering 50 general conferences of the LDS Church, Stack is speaking at the Salt Lake City Library at 7 p.m Wednesday night.
Listen to a conversation with Peggy Fletcher Stack and KUER's Lee Hale:
Q: Does it ever get old?
Stack: General Conference? Maybe a little, but the beat? Absolutely not. I remember early on someone said, “Oh you'll run out of story ideas.” And I have to tell you at all times I have between 50 and 70 story ideas that I am trying to get to. I love my beat, wouldn't want any other one.
Stack says she does her best to be a neutral voice and she’s pretty sure she’s doing a decent job because she gets criticism from all sides.
Stack: I get by far the most hate mail in the newsroom. Even more than the BYU/Utah football writers. And it’s about equal, either I’m a puppet of the LDS Church or I’m a rabid anti-Mormon.
Q: Have you always been okay with that?
Stack: It never feels good to be criticized but I do have a pretty thick skin and always have.
Q: Can you tell me about a time when you got something wrong?
Stack: Years ago I got a call late one afternoon from a sixth grader who said that she was assigned to write about a hero of hers for class and she chose Jesus and the teacher wouldn't let her. So I thought, you know that is an interesting story, I'll call the teacher. So I called the teacher, a first year teacher. She said, “Oh that student is a problem, she didn't understand the assignment.” And I said, “But would it be okay for her to pick Jesus as her hero?” She said, “Oh I can't talk to you about that, call the principal.”
So Stack called the principal and asked if the student could write about Jesus. The principal said no. Buddha? No. Mohammed? No. Which Stack knew wasn’t true. As long as it wasn’t assigned a student could write about a religious figure. She had her story.
Stack: I sent a photographer to the students house. Big mistake. So the next day we had a picture of the student with a giant portrait of Jesus in the background and all I did was use her as an example of the law. And then I started getting calls from angry teachers and parents. They said the student was bullied. The student ended up dropping out of school. The teacher was so humiliated that at the end of the year she quit teaching. And that was a really big wakeup call for me. I think I made the mistake of judgement. I didn’t get any facts wrong but I oversimplified them to make a point. And life is messy and complicated and there are real people on the other side of my stories, which I learned that day.
Q: Do you have moments when you’re grateful that you’re glad you’re covering what you’re covering because people will get to read it through your voice?
Stack: I mean, not to be arrogant, but I feel that way quite a lot. On one hand because I'm just glad that I got to see this. I got to interview the Dalai Lama. I got to watch some Shia Muslims flagellate themselves, whip themselves in sorrow over the death of an ancestor. I just feel so honored to be there as a witness.
I guess with some of my Mormon coverage I have felt that because I am a neutral reporter I'm glad that I could be there to report as opposed to people on either side of an agenda, because I wouldn't necessarily trust either side.
I mean I pinch myself and say, “Was I really there when that happened?” I got to interview another of my heroes, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. Who get’s that experience, you know?