Praying in California (giggle, giggle)

A telephone rings in The New York Times’ Big Apple newsroom. It’s a Los Angeles correspondent calling with a righteously humorous scoop on the California state budget crisis.

Correspondent: “Hey, I got a good one on the budget thing.”

Editor: “OK, shoot.”

Correspondent: “Some people with connections are stepping in to solve the crisis.”

Editor: “Really, who?”

Correspondent: “Some faith groups. They’re going to pray and ask God to intervene.”

(Insert hysterical laughter by the editor and correspondent.)

Editor (regaining his composure): “You’re kidding. Are they serious?”

Correspondent: “I don’t know. Maybe.”

(More laughter.)

Editor: “OK, could be a worth a bright. Have some fun with it. Give it 350 words or so, OK? And let me know if you come across any real news.”


The next morning, this “news story” (trying to conform with Times style on scare quotes) appears on Page A15 of the New York edition. Here’s the top of the piece (please prepare to guffaw):

Big budget gap? Call in the big guy

LOS ANGELES — And on the first day without a state budget, the men and women of God gathered in prayer at the Capitol to beg that he guide the mortals in closing a gap of biblical proportions.

A day after California lawmakers missed the June 15 deadline to have a budget in place, leaders representing 10 faiths sought “divine wisdom” on Wednesday, offered prayers and demanded that God occupy a seat at the budget negotiating table, joining the so-called Big 5: the governor and the four ranking Senate and Assembly leaders.

“We are calling for a Big 6,” said Sara Nichols of the Center for Spiritual Awareness, a former lobbyist and minister-in-training with the nondenominational religious community that organized the event. “We wanted to bless them and say, ‘They can do it.’ “

Not only was GetReligion privy to the above phone conversation (it’s a rush transcript, by the way), we obtained a confidential copy of the editor’s notes to the reporter on the final version of the piece.

Here’s what the editor had to say about those three paragraphs above:

Great lede. The Genesis reference is a nice touch, and the “gap of biblical proportions” phrasing is snappy.

But what I liked best: The description of those praying as “men and women of God” and “mortals” made it real clear that we’re not taking this craziness too seriously, or seriously at all, I mean.

To that end, I added the quote marks on “divine wisdom” in the second graf just so there was no misunderstanding.

On the reference to “leaders representing 10 faiths,” I thought about asking you to be more specific. I had no idea whether you meant different Christian faiths, or whether there were Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, et al, involved in this. You mention the Center for Spiritual Awareness, but again, I’m clueless on what that is — is it a Christian group; is it a multi-faith group; is it some New Wave religious movement?

But I digress. Such details would probably matter in a political or business story, or even a sports story, but since we’re dealing with religion, no need to worry about it. LOL.

Later in the story, there’s this:

This year, the fiscal misery befits Job: a $19 billion deficit, legislative gridlock that has defied even a governor with an action-hero past, that same governor mightily resisting the lame-duck mantle, and an election year that makes compromise — increasingly a four-letter word — harder still. All this while the state comptroller warns that it gets harder to pay bills the more the state pushes past the July 1 start of the fiscal year, just two weeks away.

Mere “human creations,” Ms. Nichols scoffed. “They don’t have to tie us down. There is room for creativity and divine intervention. What is inspiration? It draws on the other power we have.”

More from the editor:

Really enjoyed the Job reference. Shows that even though we don’t take this praying stuff seriously, we are intellectual enough to throw in a Bible reference when it adds to the cheekiness factor.

By the way, still would love to know whether these folks are serious about thinking prayer could solve a budget crisis. That’s insane. I understand why you didn’t get into that in the story, but when you’re in New York sometime, let’s have a beer and chat about the “real scoop.”

(In case it’s not abundantly clear, the above is a fictional attempt at humor. Please take it as seriously as the Times did its news reporting on this story.)

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Jerry

    With their Senatorial brethren increasingly following the lead set by the California Republican party, we should all start praying for the future of the country because we’ve been listening to “no never” out here for too many years. Compromised is considered un-Republican, un-American and dare I say un-Godly with “RINO” being tossed out at the first sign of “maybe”.

    This does not, of course, excuse the flippant headline and scare quotes but it is in the background of the increasing unhappiness felt by those that dare to call themselves moderates and who see some value in ideas from most parts of the political spectrum.

    The reference to Job is utterly appropriate. We seriously need a legislative Solomon to divide the Californian baby into Republican and Democratic states or divine intervention of another sort.

  • Sarah Webber

    Talk about your hysterical giggling: I was born and raised in CA (Fresno, mind you, so not one of the “cool” parts of CA) and happily left it 17 years ago, never to move back. I’ve lived in NJ for nearly 12 years now and prefer the local insanities to those of the land of my youth.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    I love the idea of an editor saying “lol,” but I don’t find this reporter’s approach all that inappropriate. A little over the top, maybe even snide, but not entirely unexpected.

    To be sure, I once wrote a similar story about a prayer group that was flying around the country and drawing people in from long drives to beg God for lower gas prices. But this has, in recent years, become the standard approach for asking God to solve the problems caused by men. Another example was the Georgia governor leading a prayer for rain.

    Why do I think prayers for solving the California budget crisis or the price of gasoline is a bit silly? Because:

    Yes, he’s omnipotent and omniscient and omnipresent and omni-everything; there is no limit to the pleas he can hear and the problems he can fix. But is this really what he wants us spending our time praying about, a few pennies at the pump? Aren’t higher gas prices caused by our own behavior, and don’t we carry the seeds of the solution?


  • Bobby


    Sure, I have thoughts. Whether they are coherent or not, I’ll let you decide.

    If I understand what you’re saying, you, as an individual, think the idea of praying for a solution to the budget crisis is a bit silly. Therefore, you are fine with an elite national newspaper brushing off the endeavor with a tongue-in-cheek news story.

    I guess where I differ is, I would prefer that an elite national newspaper report the facts and let me decide who the kooks are. This piece does not provide adequate details or context for me to decide whether these folks are sincerely praying for a solution or if they are a tad left of reality.

    As the original post stated, I need to know who these people are — 10 faith groups but no explanation of them? — before I can form an intelligent opinion.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Fair enough. I follow, and appreciate, your reasoning. I would only like to think that I provided more context and treated my subjects less glibly when I wrote about praying for lower gas prices.

  • Ray Ingles

    This reminded me of something, so I did a little searching.

    It seems the New York Times treated Transcendental Meditation a little more seriously 17 years ago. Is this the sort of treatment you’re looking for, Bobby?

  • Bobby

    Thank you, Brad. Having just read your story, I take issue with your claim that it was “similar” to the Times piece. The Times piece did not quote a theological expert. Nor did it provide real insight into the beliefs of those praying, as your story did.

    Ray, that States News Service item from the Times is better than the budget crisis story, but it’s still too thin for my tastes. There’s a stat in there (23 percent) of how much the meditation group claims it has reduced crime, but there’s no information at all on where that number came from or if it has any basis in reality. I realize that the police department declined to comment on it, which made the reporter’s job more difficult.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Bobby, you’re right. The theme was similar but the tone quite different. Mine was not condescending of religion but certainly questioned the theological correctness of such an action.

  • Bobby

    Mine was not condescending of religion but certainly questioned the theological correctness of such an action.

    Journalistically speaking, don’t you think that is an important distinction?

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Journalistically speaking, don’t you think that is an important distinction?

    Most definitely.

  • Crimson Wife

    The author describes the CSA as a “non-denominational religious community” when I think he meant non-sectarian. I saw references to God on the CSA website but nothing specifically Christian. Don’t they have an editor at the NYT who is familiar with such a basic distinction????

  • Bobby

    Crimson Wife, good catch. Thanks.

  • Hasan Hakeem

    Aside from all of the palaver, I enjoyed Aretha Franklin’s take on the whole thing.