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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 6, 2004; 1:00 PM

Consumers used to get their news from newspapers, magazines and evening broadcasts from the three television networks. Now, with the Internet, cable TV and 24-hour news networks, the news cycle is faster and more constant, with every minute carrying a new deadline. But clearly more news and more news outlets are not necessarily better. And just because the press has the ability to cover a story doesn't always mean they should -- or that they'll do it well.

Howard Kurtz has been The Washington Post's media reporter since 1990. He is also the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and the author of "Media Circus," "Hot Air," "Spin Cycle" and "The Fortune Tellers: Inside Wall Street's Game of Money, Media and Manipulation." Kurtz talks about the press and the stories of the day in "Media Backtalk."

Howard Kurtz (washingtonpost.com)

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The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Boston, Mass.: You touched on this in your article this morning, but why is Dick Morris so obessed with the Clintons? The Bushes seem more likely to have a 3rd family member run, if Jeb runs in 2008.

washingtonpost.com: The Media Get Their Man (washingtonpost.com, July 6)

Howard Kurtz: Morris worked for the Clintons on and off since Bill first began running for Arkansas governor, and quit (officially at least) as a presidential adviser in '96 when he got caught employing the services of a call girl. In recent years he has ripped the Clintons frequently and is particularly hard on Hillary.

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San Antonio, Tex.: Questions galore: On the nasty scale, how nasty do you think the upcoming campaign will get? Will the nastiest salvos be saved for the live debates? (One debate for VEEP candidates, two or three for Presidential contenders, is that right?) Do you think that Bush is planning--or perhaps holding back on--an October surprise? The choice of Edwards really isn't a very big surprise, is it? Looking into your crystal ball, is there anything you'd be willing to bet the ranch on?

Howard Kurtz: I don't even own a ranch. The Edwards news is not a huge surprise, not the way the media speculation was going. The campaign has already gotten quite negative, particularly in advertising and e-mail attacks, but you're not likely to see that degree of negativity in the debates, when the candidates have to worry about projecting a positive image while needling their opponent.

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Annadale, Va.: I don't about you but I would rather see Katie c playing badminton than more coverage of Saddam Hussein, who we are going being seeing for the next couple of years if Milosevic's trial at the Hague is any guide. Do you think Saddam will try to play the media card the same way Milosevic has done?

washingtonpost.com: After 'My Life,' A Payback Backlash (Post, July 5)

Howard Kurtz: Sure, and is likely to get way more coverage than Milosevic. But, you know, we could have seen Katie Couric play badminton a half hour later (after covering the Saddam court hearing) and the Today show has admitted that was a mistake.

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Springfield, Va.: A friend in NC tells me that Edwards ran for President and VP because he could not get re-elected. I have not seen any mention of why he chose not to run again in the press coverage.

Howard Kurtz: Edwards passed up running for reelection at a time when he was still pursuing the presidential nomination, when he came under considerable home-state pressure not to go after both jobs at once. It was widely reported at the time that he was not a shoo-in for reelection in North Carolina.

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Arlington, Va.: Howard, I think one of the worst innovations in politics is the Presidential war room where the campaigns have a negative opinion of anything the opposition does. It has lowered the tone of politics and I am curious as to whether anything the Democrats say about Cheney or the Republicans about Edwards will have any impact. I think that a lot of money is being wasted with this stuff.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think people pay much attention to opposition rhetoric on candidates like Cheney and Edwards. But the specifics that the rival campaigns spread--the Republicans on Edwards's trial lawyer background, the Democrats on Halliburton--often find their way into news coverage and opinion columns, and there it can have an impact.

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Hartford, Conn.: Will today's Dewey-Beats-Gephardt moment lead to new reforms in sourcing and factchecking? Or is the New York Post going to laugh it off and go back to the mantra of being first, first, first?

Howard Kurtz: The Post doesn't seem to be laughing it off, which would be hard to do after such a spectacular blunder. But it's not really a fact-checking question. Presumably the tabloid had one source who thought it was Gephardt, or likely to be Gephardt, and decided to roll the front-page dice. A lesson to everyone in the media that we ought to stay out of the prediction business.

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Arlington, Va.: The Bush campaign is planning to attack Kerry for reportedly offering the VP slot to McCain and reportedly doing polling before selecting Edwards. Shouldn't it matter that neither of those reports has been confirmed by anyone? Do you expect the media to make that clear at all?

Howard Kurtz: It all depends on the meaning of the word "offered."
As has been widely reported, Kerry had several discussions with McCain about the vice presidency, but never made a formal offer. This sort of flirtation gives both sides deniability, and the idea of McCain breaking ranks was always something of a media-fueled fantasy. But I think it's pretty clear that Kerry would have put McCain on the ticket if the Arizona senator had signalled a willingness to accept.

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Alexandria, Va.: Howard,

Thanks for doing the chats.

CNN keeps running Bush's ad with McCain, claiming McCain was Kerry's "first choice" for the VP. I don't believe Kerry or his people, or McCain, ever said this; why is CNN not clarifying that this is innuendo and not fact?

Also, are you surprised that McCain is helping Bush out to such a degree after Bush's campaign viciously slandered McCain's family in 2000?

Howard Kurtz: CNN should make the distinction I just made in my last answer. But the new Bush ad is obviously news.
I think McCain is still angry about what the Bush campaign did in 2000, but that in his heart he's a loyal Republican who feels he should do his duty for the party.

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Crystal City, Va.: Good afternoon, Howard.

Some defenders of Cheney are claiming it was Leahy's staff who leaked his "f-bomb" to the press. Do you know who is really responsible for publicizing this "frank exchange of views"?

Howard Kurtz: I believe it was overheard by others and gleefully confirmed by Leahy's staff.

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Phoenix, Ariz.: OK, I got up this morning, turned on the TV, and within 30 minutes had seen Bush's new "McCain" ad TWICE -- not in paid air time, but as "news" on CNN and MSNBC. Isn't there something unethical about broadcasting political ads as news? For free?

Howard Kurtz: Um, it happens all the time. Every time either the Bush or Kerry camps releases a new ad, it gets lots of free airplay on the cable channels. We often publish the ads in The Post with a critique by me.

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Easton, Md.: Where the heck is Anthony Shadid? We miss his reporting. Iraq isn't the same for us without him. Is he writing a book?

Howard Kurtz: He is on leave, and I believe is writing a book.

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Arlington, Va.: With speculation rife on blogs regarding Kerry's running mate, do you think the campaigns are planting test messages on blogs and discussion boards to sound out ideas, what about decoy messages? Thank you.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think they're organized. But obviously some of the bloggers may have their own sources in the campaigns and pass on their views.

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Wexford, Pa.: In last week's chat, a Bush supporter took issue with you for calling "Fahrenheit 9/11" a hit because he didn't think it had legs and no one would see it twice, he said. Never mind that in just its first weekend, the film raked in more than any other documentary ever. No one, not even Moore, expected his film to outdo "Spidey-2" this weekend, but "F 9/11" took in another $21 million and has grossed almost $60 million in just two weeks. That's phenomenal for a documentary.
Wexford is a strong GOP enclave -- county, state and federal Dem candidates don't stand a chance of winning here -- yet, when I saw Moore's film at the local cineplex, the large theatre was crowded and the audience applauded loudy afterward. Go figure.
Do you think Dubya's minions are angry that not only was this film made and released, but they couldn't harass theatre-owners into not showing it and now they're angrier because millions of Americans are thronging to see it?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think there was a serious attempt by the Bush campaign to keep Farenheit out of theaters, just a couple of conservative groups. And I'm sure the Bush team isn't happy that Michael Moore is drawing millions for a film that bashes the president, though I question how many votes will be changed in the end.

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Intellectual property: RE: The Miami Times reporter fired for plagiarizing himself... I don't get it. Don't we all walk around with the same core ideas in our heads and revisit them all of our lives?

Howard Kurtz: Sure, but some of us change the words.
It was the Miami Herald, by the way.

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Fairfax, Va.: I'm at a loss. What difference should it make how the Cheney thing got "leaked?" He either said it or he didn't, and he "gleefully" admits he did. Is this an attempt to "kill the messenger," which seems to be a big thing with Republicans?

Howard Kurtz: Doesn't make much difference. But it's a fair question as to whether the Dems put it out there.

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New York, N.Y.: Howard,

During the primary, as well as during his prior run for the Senate, John Edwards has been scrutinized for any skeletons in his closet -- by his opponents and the media. Seemingly, he has come through that process unscathed.

With that said, shouldn't any accusations of wrong-doing on Edwards' part be viewed with a very suspicious eye as to the true intentions of the accusers? Also, do you think it is inevitable that there will be a "let's throw mud on the wall and see what sticks" kind of campaign in store?

Howard Kurtz: Early this morning, I got an RNC email filled with negative talking points about Edwards. Some of these criticisms, ranging from his trial-lawyer background to his lack of experience in foreign affairs, were brought up during the primaries and will undoubtedly be recycled again and again. In politics, there's a difference between wrongdoing and things that are embarrassing. Already some reporters are focusing on the negative comments that Kerry made about Edwards during their campaign--standard fare when a nominee picks someone he had run against or criticized (see Reagan-Bush, '80, and Dole-Kemp, '96).

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Alexandria, Va.: Other than Dewey Beats Truman, has there been a more embarassing headline then the New York Post's Kerry picks Gephardt?

Howard Kurtz: Not in this century.

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Falls Church, Va.: RE: BUSH AD

HK: Um, it happens all the time...

Well, isn't that what the questioner asked? Whethter it was right or not? Just because it happens all the time doesn't mean it is right?

Howard Kurtz: It's fine. Ads are news. Millions of dollars are spent on them. Why wouldn't television use them? The question is whether anchors and correspondents (and newspaper reporters the next day) provide any fact-checking and analysis, as opposed to giving the campaigns a free ride to make their partisan points.

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Arlington, Va.: Today you touched on the mini lovefest that the press has recently given to Edwards. Why are there certain politicians (Edwards, McCain, Powell, etc.) that the press choose as favorites? Is the trick just to get some good media relations coaching? I can't imagine that the media's favored politicans are any more squeaky clean than the rest of them.

Howard Kurtz: Interesting question. Sometimes it's that the pols are personable and court the press (McCain is a master at that). Other times it's that the candidates are seen as exciting, charismatic or controversial enough to be a good story. Howard Dean, for example, was a great story, but made little effort to develop good relations with journalists, who then went overboard with negative stories that I believe played a role in derailing his campaign. Reporters also tend to like mavericks, like McCain and Dean, who take on their own parties.

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Rosslyn, Va.: Okay, I'm from Michigan, have been living in Maryland for the past year and recently moved to Virginia and work in the District. I have seen none of the ads for either the Bush or Kerry camp for President in the Greater D.C. area. I went home for a weekend, back to Detroit and saw many biographical Kerry ads on TV. Will we ever see the presidential ads in the Greater D.C. area or are Maryland, Virginia and D.C. votes already decided as none of them are 'swing' states?

Howard Kurtz: Exactly. There are 18 battleground states, from Florida and New Hampshire to Ohio and Wisconsin, and if you don't live in them, you see the ads only on national cable or on newscasts.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: In a Washington Post article on Dick Cheney last week, Mike Allen wrote, "Comedian Jon Stewart has made repeated use of a clip of Cheney denying to an interviewer last month that he had made a statement connecting Iraq to the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, followed by a clip of Cheney making the statement on NBC's 'Meet the Press' two months after the attacks."
Why is only Stewart raising this important issue and not the Brokaws, Jenningses, Zahns, Browns and Rathers? (I don't expect Hume and Snow to; that would violate their "fair and balanced" approach to news.)
But if someone denies making a statement (as Cheney did to Gloria Borger on CNBC) and there's footage of him making the statement, doesn't that mean, oh, I don't know, he lied on CNBC? Why is the American media so fearful of doing their job and being tough on the VP for being less than honest, especially since he keeps touting this imaginary link?
Could it be, once again, that the Brokaws, Zahns et al fear being branded unpatriotic for criticizing this administration, even though they'd be pointing out the truth? Or, is it that they're simply lazy and incompetent? Maybe in 18 months, they'll issue an apology for not having been skeptical and critical enough and media pundits will praise them for their courage and honesty.

Howard Kurtz: Lots of news accounts subsequently pointed out that Cheney had in fact said what he had denied saying. But it's hard, if you're interviewing someone live, to call him on that sort of thing if you don't have the transcript or the videotape at your fingertips.

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Columbia, Md.: I have a question. I keep reading that Kerry and now Kerry/Edwards will have to explain why they voted for the Patriot act and now oppose it or want massive changes. This always seems to be construed negatively. It seems to me that this should be a strong point. They voted for something, have seen they did not like the results and ackknowledge it was an error and now want to change it. Why is changing their position seen as such a bad thing? People also consider Bush never admitting to a mistake a bad thing. So which is it?

Howard Kurtz: The same goes for the Iraq war and the No Child Left Behind act. The Bush campaign has used these and other Kerry positions to portray him as a flip-flopper who's always changing his mind. Another way to look at it is that someone's views evolve over time, or legislation doesn't work out the way one had hoped. The challenge for someone like Kerry is to make those distinctions without saying, as politicians hate to do, that he was wrong in the first place.

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Arlington, Va.: Do you think that Edwards'voting record on Iraq (for the war, against the $87B), which mirrors Kerry's was a big factor in his selection? Either they are both in agreement on the big issue, or they are both flip-floppers -- depending upon your party.

Howard Kurtz: I think it was a factor only in the sense that it would have been difficult for John Kerry to pick a running mate who opposed the Iraq war. There would have been weeks of questions about how he could reconcile that position with his own vote for the war.

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Boulder, Colo.: Regarding the NY Post's flub - is it possible that someone in Kerry's camp decided on a "disinformation" leak to warn that paper against continued biased anti-Kerry screeds?

This was quite humorous. Watch out, Washington Times!

Howard Kurtz: I doubt they're that Machiavellian. Perhaps we need a special prosecutor to look into it.

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Gambrills, Md.: Any chance the RNC's strategy of painting Edwards as a trial lawyer might backfire to a certain degree? After all, as recounted in Edwards' book "Four Trials," he had a lot of sympathetic clients (including a young girl whose intestines were sucked out by a defective pool drain).

Howard Kurtz: This is the classic tort reform debate. Are trial lawyers standing up for the little guy against powerful and heartless corporations, as Edwards would have it, or just feathering their own nests and driving up insurance costs by wheedling punitive awards out of juries? We'll be hearing a lot more about this.

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Crystal City, Arlington, Va.: In your on-line column last week you pointed out some harsh words by Clinton about a Washington Times editor (mostly concerning the editor's father's record on race relations). The editor fired back, and then you quoted a Clinton staffer who leveled new charges with no substantiation offered and without answering the original question (and no reporting from you or the Washington Post to give us readers some indication of the truth). Can you fill us in, or do you really want me to start spending a quarter every day to read your competition?

Howard Kurtz: It was in yesterday's print column, and I checked what Clinton's spokesman had said about the editor (describing Jesse Helms as a hero, for example) and found the substantiation online. If I hadn't, I either wouldn't have published the response or would have added that no substantiation could be provided.

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Arlington, Va.: The most embarrassing headline was one in a Tampa newspaper a few weeks ago announcing that the Tampa team had lost the Stanley Cup when they'd actually won.

Howard Kurtz: Yes - that was on a Tampa Tribune editorial, as I reported. It was in some ways worse than the New York Post screwup because the game had already happened and we knew who won. But unlike the Post, it was an accident in which the wrong editorial (both versions had been written before the final game) ran by mistake.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Normally the vice-presidential candidate isn't announced until about one week before the convention. What could be the strategy of the Kerry campaing to announce their pick three weeks before? Doesn't it lose some buzz by the time the convention occurs?

Howard Kurtz: The strategy is to generate favorable coverage over the next three weeks as the two campaign together and not worry about the convention. The Kerry people understand that ratings for the convention have been dropping every four years for quite awhile.

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Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: I'm sure you're aware of the New York Post's "Dewey Defeats Truman!" moment this morning, when the paper announced an "exclusive!" that Kerry would pick Gephardt.

Do you think the Post, reliably nasty toward all those whose politics are left of Czar Nicholas, was set up? I think it's pretty hilarious. Talk about "stories you won't find anywhere else"!

Howard Kurtz: I led with the New York Post in my online column this morning.
I doubt the paper was set up. The editors are offering no public explanation. But why would a Kerry source want to leak such a story to a newspaper that has hardly been friendly to the Democrats, anyway? I don't know what they were thinking.

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Rockville, Md.: Can you explain why the lead story on today's Post front page was that Kerry would be making an announcement? Seems like a big story saying nothing.

Howard Kurtz: Sometimes, on the verge of a major news story, the best you can do is set the stage based on what you know at the time. Today's story also vacuumed up what was going on behind the scenes with the veepstakes, comments from potential contenders, etc. It was a story the paper knew would obviously be dated by early today, on a topic--Kerry's choice--that was at center stage in the campaign.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: I live in NYC and as I was on the subway this morning I noticed the NY Post cover had an "exclusive" revealing that John Kerry had selected Richard Gephardt as his running mate. Can you explain how such a horrible mistake can run on a front page? What happened and will anyone get fired for this?

Howard Kurtz: The decision was made by the paper's top editor, Col Allan. So unless he decides to fire himself, it's hard to see how heads would roll.

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Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: The White House continuously gives out the message that it does the right thing, and is not captive to opinion polls -- and blames Kerry for picking his running mate based on polls. Yet this White House spends more on opinion polling than any White House in history, including Clinton. Yet the assertions of not relying on polls go unchallenged. Why do you think that is?

Howard Kurtz: All politicians say they don't pay attention to polls and all are privately poring over the numbers, or having people do it for them. This has often been pointed out about Bush, as it was about Clinton. It's also true that officeholders don't always follow the polls; Clinton would not have ordered military action in Haiti, and Bush would not have invaded Iraq, if they were just following public opinion. But it's no accident that one of the Bush campaign's leading spokesman is a pollster, Matthew Dowd (who, by the way, predicts Kerry will get a 15-point lead from his VP pick, enabling the other side to either dismiss such a lead as predictable or insist that Kerry-Edwards failed to meet "expectations").

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Herndon, Va.: "The Kerry people understand that ratings for the convention have been dropping every four years for quite awhile."

It's often been said that the convention is where Kerry will try to define himself. Do you expect he will be able to do this given the reduced popularity, and if not, how will he start to get his message through to people?

Howard Kurtz: Conventions still matter, even though fewer people are watching. But the most important moments by far will be Edwards's speech and then Kerry's speech, especially given polls showing that more than a third of the country doesn't know much about the Democratic nominee in waiting.

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Birmingham, Ala.: Since Bush and McCain are playing nice, do you think this portends McCain for Sec. of Defense?

Howard Kurtz: Don't know. Something tells me McCain is more likely to get that job in a Kerry administration.

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Iowa: So some lucky bloggers will get press credentials at both the Dem. and Rep. conventions. Do you think the highly partisan blogs will benefit more from this access at their respective conventions than blogs that at least make an attempt at being non- or bi-partisan?

washingtonpost.com: Parties to Allow Bloggers to Cover Conventions for First Time (Post, June 6)

Howard Kurtz: I think any bloggers who attend their conventions will keep their personalities intact, rather than trying to be NYT or CNN reporters. But they can obviously benefit from being there in terms of interviews and providing color. It's an interesting development that will separate the action-oriented bloggers from the confirmed couch potatoes.

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Seattle, Wash.: Howard,

In reference to Cheney's lie on CNBC, has the press really reported on it enough? Do you think the average person knows about Cheney's lie?

In contrast, the press wouldn't let up on Gore's "lies" in 2000 (including Love Canal, which was only a "lie" because the press misquoted him!) They played a big role in cementing the CW of him as a liar. Cheney, a real, documented liar, gets a relatively free pass.

Howard Kurtz: I'm not willing to label what Cheney said a lie; he probably forgot he had said it. After all, why deliberately lie about something if you know a videotape exists that can easily contradict what you said?
Given all the negative publicity about Halliburton, Cheney's secret energy task force and so on, I'd hardly say the vice president is getting a free ride.

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Detroit, Mich.: Howard, when will we see a polling sample with Edwards as Kerry's VP and how that plays out against Bush/Cheney?

Howard Kurtz: You'll probably see an insta-poll tomorrow, and one with a better sample later in the week. But I'd be cautious about these early polls, which will reflect all the upbeat coverage that began this morning. In other words, any Edwards bounce could be short-lived. Though this is one area where Bush can't also benefit from a new running mate, unless, as is extremely unlikely, he decides Cheney should spend more time with his family.
Thanks for the chat, folks.

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