What kind of wacky, ridiculous business of the New York Times does Public Editor Clark Hoyt have to examine lately? Try this one on for size: putting the public at risk while driving, and bragging about it via the photo.

See, last week, the Times ran a nice long piece about the dangers of texting while driving ("Driven to Distraction: Drivers and Legislators Dismiss Cellphone Risks") and a nice picture to go with it. We covered it here, and it got lots of wonderful attention elsewhere, because, really, you shouldn't text while driving. It's a fairly stupid thing to do (unless, of course, you're really good at texting. You're not, are you?).

But a close look at the story's accompanying picture (pictured above) would indicate that someone was actually texting while driving for a New York Times photo paired with a story about the public nuisance that is texting while driving. The picture shows the speedometer going slightly over 60 MPH, and yes, they definitely got letters about it. Scott Saloway of Union, N.J. wrote into Hoyt: "I was bothered by the fact the photographer who took it either was in the car at the time and let the driver put his and others' lives at risk, or staged the photograph in a parked car to achieve the desired effect." So are we! What's next, snapping pictures of secret CIA death squads to accompany the conspiracy theory that they might actually exist? This is a slippery slope, and Public Editor Hoyt has to stop it, now. His response?

Yeah, the photo was real. But (A) it was a freelancer's photo that (B) he took covering a story on H.I.V. at a St. Louis high school while recording the lives of some of the students he had built a rapport with and (C) he would've spoken up had it, you know, gotten bad:

On the way, Gill said, the driver was constantly texting what he called "one of his girls." Gill, buckled in the back seat, said the moment he captured, when the passenger took the wheel, lasted no more than 30 seconds. "There were no wild movements of the vehicle," he said. "It didn't raise the hairs on the back of my neck." In fact, he said, "It was done so quickly it seemed like common practice – not that it was safe. It wasn't safe."

I asked Gill what his responsibility was at a moment like that. He told PDNonline, a Web site for professional photographers, that he was there as a journalist, not a parent. "I'm not there to be their friend," he told me. "I'm there to be an alien in the car who doesn't exist." A photographer in those circumstances is trying to disappear from the minds of his subjects so that he can observe their behavior and not influence it. Had the car started to swerve or wander out of its lane, he said, he would have spoken up. "I think what I would have done is state, ‘This isn't cool.'"

God. What a narc. The piece even merited a blog post from a guy who used to be a photo editor at USA Today, Matt Mendelsohn, who argues that they should've just been upfront about the potential brouhaha with the photo beforehand. Hoyt's final shot before a quote from a Times photo editor is basically a we-did-what-we-needed-to-do:

In the end, it was a dramatic illustration, across four columns of the front page, of dangerous behavior The Times was trying to highlight and warn against.

...in which case, the next time you guys tackle the important issues, give the people what they want: imagery.

Photo via the New York Times.

A Dramatic Photo: Was It Real? [NYT]
@NYT: ur caption lacks clarity, imho [The Dark Slide]