Just as Native Americans of the Great Plains reportedly used every part of the buffalo, the Washington Post‘s detractors believe that its liberal staffers can use every part of the newspaper to further their agenda. Reader comments, an upcoming paywall, even Sally Quinn——all are grist for the Post‘s fellow travelers.

But are Post employees also willing to manipulate the elements of our natural world? Reader David Burton thinks so. To illustrate a March 15 article about new emissions rules for power plants, the Post used an Associated Press photograph of smokestacks at a coal power plant in Kansas. Because the photo was taken at sunset, the emissions take on a menacing black-grey color.

And for Burton, that’s the problem. In a blue sky during the middle of the day, the power plant’s emissions, most of which are just steam, have a mundane off-white color. By choosing the AP photo’s more dangerous-looking pictures of steam, Burton alleges, the Post and AP photographer Charlie Riedel are hoping to trick readers into being concerned about pollution from coal-fired power plants.

“You’ve got to grudgingly admire the AP / Washington Post’s mastery of the propaganda craft,” Burton writes in an email to my colleague, Washington Post reader representative Douglas Feaver.

Westar Energy, which owns the Kansas power plant, also thinks the photo advances an agenda. “Charlie is a skilled photographer who used backlighting to capture a dramatic image of the plant that reinforces the emissions story and the perception that power plants are dirty,” Westar spokeswoman Gina Penzig writes in a statement to your ombudsman. Westar has contacted the AP several times about the picture, according to the company.

Were Post employees just looking for the most dramatic picture of a power plant they could find, or is something more nefarious at play? Absent the appearance of a damning email from the Post‘s photo department, this just looks like a case of good page composition. The Post needed a striking picture of a generic power plant, and the AP photo certainly provides that. The AP photo caption attached to the Post story also helps readers understand the picture, noting that the emissions are “silhouetted against the sky at dusk.”

But not all readers will consider the captions, and the picture is nearly four years old, according to Westar. While I clear the Post of bias (for now!), it’s time for the paper to power down its use of the picture

Washington Post Ombudsman is a service provided by Washington City Paper. Concerns or complaints about the Washington Post? Contact ombudsman Will Sommer via email at postombudsman@washingtoncitypaper.com or on the phone at 703-594-9142.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery