There it is, right there at the top of the front page: a caught-in-the-act photo of Rick Wagoner, the chairman of General Motors, on his way to Washington on Wednesday on the passenger side of a Chevy Malibu.
It's exactly the public image Wagoner wanted to put on display. Which is exactly why the Times shouldn't have fallen for it.
We all know Wagoner was driving to Washington -- he'd bragged about it publicly in advance, wanting to correct the image he'd conveyed in flying to testify a few weeks ago on GM's corporate jet.
But how did Wagoner manage to engineer that photo? It presents itself as objective news photography, having been snapped without Wagoner's knowledge by a passing photographer in moving traffic. But obviously it wasn't.
That means the photograph must have been arranged as pure media event, which common sense confirms. Of course Wagoner's public-relations team would have helped a photographer capture that moment; there's nothing they wanted more than to have their boss seen in the front seat of a GM car, as promised -- a perfect piece of positive propaganda for an executive under nearly constant fire for the last several weeks.
Should the Times have gone along with such an obvious effort by GM to shape the direction of public opinion, without any explanation in the caption? In this case, the Times should have either resisted the temptation to run the photo so prominently, or explained the circumstance to readers. The paper did neither, but it didn't fool anyone.
UPDATE: As if to underscore the point, the Times's lead story Friday morning on the hearings noted Congressional skepticism of the drive to Washington, implying strongly that it was a media event:
[Alabama Republican Sen. Richard] Shelby grilled the executives about how they got to Washington, suggesting he regarded driving as a stunt. “Did you drive or did you have a driver? Did you drive a little and ride a little? And secondly, I guess are you going to drive back?”
That prompted Mr. Dodd, laughing, to interject: “Where did you stay? What did you eat?”
“The chairman wants to make light of this,” Mr. Shelby said. He was not smiling.
The Times could have used a bit of Shelby's skepticism yesterday in its decision to present a photograph of the drive, without comment.