Sometimes the language and imagery of a news story is so startling that you're drawn to read it despite yourself.

(The writer gets double points if it you're lured in without the phrase, "...and you'll never guess what happens next!")

A headline and phrase last week in The New York Times happened to catch our eye, and the story led us to some remarkable wording.

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The story is now titled, VW Chief 'Personally' Apologized to Obama Over Cheating, and it covered a meeting between U.S. president Barack Obama and VW Group CEO Matthias Müller.

The two met when Obama visited Hanover, close to VW's Wolfsburg global headquarters, for a dinner hosted by German chancellor Angela Merkel for the president to meet with German industry leaders.

At a news conference held last Thursday in Wolfsburg, Müller said he had personally apologized to the president for the company's role in the diesel-emission cheating scandal.

The pair had a two-minute conversation, he said, during which he also noted that 600,000 employees and many German suppliers depend on VW's continued health and growth.

"Lawyers in the case expect the Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department to demand penalties that are painful for Volkswagen," noted the Times, "but not so severe that they destroy the company."

The story is relatively straightforward—but in our original reading, we had noticed a different headline that caught our eye.

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As reprinted by The Boston Globe (previously owned by The New York Times), the story still carries the more evocative original title that we had noticed.

It was, VW chief 'personally' apologized to Obama in plea for mercy—and that specific phrase was repeated in the first paragraph of the story.

The chief executive of one of the world's three largest automakers, wrote reporter Jack Ewing, had been "making what amounted to a plea for mercy as the German carmaker negotiates penalties with US officials."

Consumer Reports tests 2015 Volkswagen Jetta TDI diesel in 'cheat mode,' October 2015 [video frame]

Consumer Reports tests 2015 Volkswagen Jetta TDI diesel in 'cheat mode,' October 2015 [video frame]

There's a world of difference between an apology and a "plea for mercy," and we wonder if the language proved just a little too colorful for the final version online at the Times site.

But it must be startling, even horrifying, to see a foreign newspaper report that a top German executive essentially begged the president of another country for lenient treatment after his company knowingly and deliberately violated that country's laws for eight years.

Such language, and such imagery, are one of the reasons the story remains so newsworthy.

It seems rather out of character for the CEO of a major automaker to plead for anything, up to and including government-backed bailouts for two of the three native U.S. makers during 2009.

We watched those hearings, and we'd be hard-pressed to think of anything that would get quite to the level of a "plea for mercy" by GM's Rick Wagoner or Chrysler's Bob Nardelli (both of whom are long-gone from their CEO roles).

2014 Volkswagen Passat TDI

2014 Volkswagen Passat TDI

We certainly can't know what happened during the conversation between President Obama and CEO Müller.

But the language used to describe such a meeting reflects the continuing seriousness and grave consequences of VW's actions.

Whether the president is inclined to suggest to the EPA or other agencies that they be merciful toward Volkswagen is anyone's guess.

But if we had to lay odds, we'd bet against.

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