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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 8, 2004; 12:00 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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Washington, D.C.: Okay, as a political junkie, I took two, maybe more, days off since every channel showed Reagan interviews, acquaintances, coffin draped with American flag, etc. I also can see how the Bushies may want to grasp this opportunity. My question is if you are a broadcaster that said enough is enough and instead showed what we used to call "news," would you be labeled as unpatriotic?

Howard Kurtz: Unpatriotic? I don't think so. But the media seem to have made a collective decision that there is no other news. Maybe a little bit of non-Reagan stuff creeping back today, but of course all the networks are gearing up for the funeral, which will garner wall to wall coverage.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: I have no problem with the media, especially cable networks, focusing a lot on Ronald Reagan. But is it necessary for them to go wall-to-wall all week long? Needless to say, the passing of a former president is big news, but I don't remember the networks going wall-to-wall when Richard Nixon passed away.

Howard Kurtz: Nixon got two or three days of very heavy coverage, but nothing like this weeklong, nonstop extravaganza. One difference might be that Reagan was a movie star before he was governor and president, giving the nets plenty of footage of him as the Gipper and other starring roles. Another factor is that Nixon was more respected than loved, and this little thing called impeachment was harder to sweep under the rug.

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Charlottesville, Va.: I am absolutely mystified by the deification of Ronald Reagan by the general media in their news coverage of his death. While I recognize that Reagan was beloved by a great number of people and certainly should be recognized for his service to the country, the uncritical acceptance by the media of the revision of history offered by his most fervant supporters does not reflect well on the state of journalism today. I don't think that it can be explained away simply by the fact that Reagan has died and is being given tributes for that reason. Where is the balance?

Howard Kurtz: The truth is, there isn't much. As I wrote yesterday, the journalists singing Reagan's praises in recent days were in many cases part of the press corps that subjected the 40th president to very critical coverage during his eight years in office. If you were too young to remember Reagan and just tuned in since Saturday, you'd have very little idea that he was a controversial figure with legions of detractors as well as admirers. There is very little mention of the huge budget deficits, administration scandals, Iran-contra mess and other setbacks that are also part of the Reagan record.

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Ellicott City, Md.: Howard-

Wasn't this weekend and this week through the G8 summit supposed to be something to pull Bush out from the Iraq issues? If that gets overshadowed by the Gipper, won't there be nothing positive seen for Bush and so when that blows over the negatives will come right back out.

Seems neither Kerry or Bush can buy a headline right now.

Howard Kurtz: Bush seems overshadowed at the moment, but I'm sure he'll play a role in the upcoming ceremonies. Anything that gets Iraq off the front pages is probably a plus for the president. Plus, his advisers are pushing the argument that Bush is carrying on the legacy of Reaganism while Kerry was a frequent Reagan critic. Bush has one reason to be grateful to RR: If Reagan hadn't picked his dad as his running mate in 1980, it's far less likely that George H.W. Bush would have become president, and even less likely that his son would be in that office today.

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Washington, D.C.: How long after Reagan's passing will the media reflect the negative impact of the Reagan-era? It seems his 'legacy' is one of controversy with his efforts to dismantle the EPA, the Iran-Contra episode, putting Saddam in power in Iraq, and the negative opinion of him in the Middle East and Latin America. Will historians simply leave these out because of the emotion surrounding his death?

Howard Kurtz: Historians won't, but the current media frenzy has largely overlooked such things. Reagan didn't "put" Saddam in power, though his administration favored the Iraq regime as a counterweight to hostage-taking Iran, and Reagan was popular in some parts of the world, particularly after hammering out arms-control agreements with Gorbachev. Many in Europe initially viewed Reagan as a cowboy, but his legacy there came to look very different after the Soviet Union's collapse.

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Boston, Mass.: Mr. Kurtz,

Just a small comment. While I understand the passing a former President is big news, I wish the networks & cable shows could have balanced the Reagan passing and the 60th anniversary of D-Day better.

Thank you.

Howard Kurtz: Ironically, all the networks had made big plans to cover the D-Day anniversary (which was not a big deal until Reagan seized the moment on the 40th anniversary). But the coverage got totally overshadowed when Reagan's death was announced at 4 p.m. eastern Saturday.

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New York, N.Y.: So, while John Kerry takes the week off from campaigning, what will the Bush campaign do?

Howard Kurtz: Bush apparently has suspended campaigning as well, although he'll play a role in the Reagan ceremonies.

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Shawnee, Kans.: Howard, read your 5-7 column ref the death of Ronald Reagan. You included many unfavorable and some almost nasty comments from the liberal press. Did their continued deep hatred of Reagan and conservatives surprise you?

washingtonpost.com: Reagan: The Retake (Post, June 7)

Howard Kurtz: In a couple of cases, yes. I think it's perfectly appropriate for critics to point out Reagan's weaknesses and mistakes; journalists, after all, usually try to provide a balanced picture, and those rules shouldn't be suspended because someone has died. But some of the vitriol tells me that the emotions of the 1980s have not entirely subsided, at least among some wielding very sharp quills.

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Washington, D.C.: What is going on with the prisoner abuse scandel? Will Ronald Reagan's death push this issue out of the media's attention and will it ever be brought back to the main stage?

Howard Kurtz: Well, The Post's lead story today is about a 2002 Justice Department memo advising the White House that torturing captured al Qaeda members "may be justified." The story, like everything else on the planet, will obviously be overshadowed this week, but there are too many investigations going on for it to simply fade from the news.

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Falls Church, Va.: I have a comment and a question. The media is falling all over themselves singing the praises of Ronald Reagan despite much evidence that aside from his communication skills he was a very mediocre and ill informed president. Do you feel the press is simply intimidated by the far right and making sure they are not accused of being disprespectful or are they just caught up in the post 9/11 frenzy where questioning authority or the common wisdom in any way is considered to be unpatriotic. Thank you.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think anyone is intimidated (and many would disagree with your characterization that he was a "mediocre" president--he transformed American politics, like him or not). I think the media are just being swept along on this wave of emotion and that many journalists are loath to criticize any public figure who has just passed away, a phenomenon we also saw after Nixon's death.

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Washington, D.C.: How will the Reagan love-fest fare on Bush? Will it hurt him or help him? He has tried to paint himself as a Reagan-Repulican, will the public really buy into this? Or has Bush jumped at another chance to try and increase his popularity especially at a time when he is slipping in the polls?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know how much it will help Bush. It's certainly smart politics for Bush to position himself as the natural inheritor of the Reagan mantle. (I've long felt that Bush's presidency has more in common with Reagan's than with his father's.) But I wonder whether any of this will matter by the fall debates against Kerry and on Election Day.

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Honolulu, Hawaii: Hi Howard,

How much does the media prepare in advance for the death of politician/celebrity/famous person? Are there stories written and ready to go on a moment's notice?

Also, is the media coverage of Reagan's death hurting or helping what the Bush administration/reelection campaign was expecting in positive coverage of Bush re: D-Day and G-8?

Thanks and Aloha

Howard Kurtz: Aloha. I don't know whether Bush will be helped, but I do know that all major news organizations had lengthy Reagan obituaries prepared for years. Television had lots of video packages about his life prepared. The fact that Reagan spent a decade battling a fatal disease gave journalists plenty of time to prepare for his passing, as oppose to the scrambling that often takes place when a public figure dies unexpectedly.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Your response: "Unpatriotic? I don't think so." C'mon, Howie, this nation's reporters are terrified of being vilified by the right as unpatriotic. Why do you think there was little or no criticism/investigative reporting in the pre-war stage? GOP leaders made it clear that anyone who questioned this government was essentially aiding and abetting the enemy and Americans are gullible enough to buy that crap because the last thing we'd ever want to be called is unpatriotic!

Howard Kurtz: I think there's a significant difference between the pressures on journalists as a president is taking the country to war and the remembrances of someone who left office 16 years ago.

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Takoma Park, Md.: Yes, your column was correct that recent media comment on Reagan's presidency was a lot more laudable than he received during his administration. Even Tom Shales, who was bitterly to hostile to Reagan when he was in office, had nice things to say about him in his column. There are two reasons for this, one, the man is DEAD, and few commentators have the bad taste to kick him when he is down for the last time. Second, Reagan can no longer do any harm (from their point of view) so why not be charitable? Shales, for example, used his eulogy to Reagan to take another cheap shot at the current President as not being nearly the man his predecessor was.

What you didn't mention though, was that hostile though the criticism of Reagan was during his administration, it was nothing compared to what he received BEFORE he was elected President. I am old enough to remember this and the mainstream media's take on Reagan in those days was basically that he was the American Adolf Hitler, a racist warmonger whose electoral success in California had only been achieved by demagogic appeals to people's worst instincts.

This had to be revised once Reagan actually took office as the media realized that they could not continue to tell a majority of the country that they were fools and extremists for having elected him. Instead, you started hearing about Reagan's genial personality and communications skills. (Which the media never talked about before now.) All true, of course, but it provided a plausible explanation for his success, since of course, it could have had nothing to do with his "radical right-wing" positions on the issues!

Howard Kurtz: I don't remember it that way. No serious news organization called Ronald Reagan a racist or compared him to Hitler. He was often chided as uninformed, a simplistic cowboy who might become a warmonger in office, but these portraits began to soften as Reagan took his case to the country in 1976 and particularly in 1980.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: New York Times' mea culpa about its pre-war coverage was awfully self-serving, wasn't it? What was even more appalling were all the media pundits who then praised the New York Times for its honesty. Give me a break! All those Pulitzer Prize winners working there and none bothered to consider that Iraqi dissidents, including a man indicted for fraud, might be feeding them false information to further their own agenda? I could've told them that. Anyone who is aware of what goes on in the world could have told them that. What no one, including all you erudite media pundits, wants to admit is that the main reason there was no skepticism about this administration's reasoning before the war was because no reporter, editor or newspaper wanted to be seen as "unpatriotic." We Americans have an unhealthy obsession with patriotism and it skewers everything we do, especially "in these times." What exactly is the point of this mea culpa? It's akin to western leaders apologizing to Rwandans for not doing anything about the genocide years earlier. A fat lot of good that apology did.

Howard Kurtz: I think it's more complicated than that. The question of patriotism may have played a part, but what you're overlooking is that these stories are extraordinarily difficult to report. You're relying on shadowy sources of questionable credibility, as are the U.S. officials who also serve as sources for reporters. The Times, like all news outfits, was certainly aware that some of its sources were motivated by the desire to build a case for war against Saddam. But the paper, by its own admission, made some bad judgments and played down the more skeptical or debunking stories. I think you can credit the NYT with attempting to come clean -- though it should have been done sooner -- without letting the paper off the hook for its earlier blunders.

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Lexington Park, Md.: I'm 23 and obviosly too young to recall the Reagan administration well. I do notice that the way the media used to write about Reagan is pretty much the way they write about Bush. "Stubborn", "figurehead", "unqualified", ...

Am I way off base here?

Howard Kurtz: Some of those adjectives were used, but the press also credited Reagan with being a strong president -- in pushing through a major tax cut, promoting a more muscular foreign policy -- and, to use the cliche, a great communicator. He also got plenty of good coverage for his landslide reelection in 1984. But as with Bush, he had fervent admirers and detractors, even though that's not being much reflected in this week's retrospectives.

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Ballston, Va.: This is not your usual day!; Where were you yesterday? Have you been working with Weingarten on his "secret assignment"?

Howard Kurtz: I was tied up. Sorry to make you wait an extra day.

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Clementi, Singapore: Mr Kurtz,

Hope you enjoyed your break.

What a blistering attack on the late President Reagan by Christopher Hitchens at slate. Is that appropriate, do you think, given that he hasn't even been buried yet?

Also, the clip of the President Bush interview by Tom Brokaw shown on Meet the Press was devastating, in particular the question contrasting the planning of D-Day with the planning of the occupation of Iraq. Bush may be trying to jump on the Reagan bandwagon but the (inadvertant) juxtaposing of his waffling reply with various clips of President Reagan seemed telling.

Howard Kurtz: It's not for me to say that Hitchens's attack was inappropriate, though I'm sure some people will be offended It did seem unusually vitriolic, whether Reagan had just died or not, but then Hitchens used the same style to regularly skewer Bill Clinton.

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Detroit, Mich.: Imagine a question not about politics! With the exception of the local media markets, it seems as if the NHL (and even the NBA) Playoffs have taken a backseat as professional sports. I remember hearing a lot more about the NHL Stanley Cup Finals when Ray Borque won the cup with the Avs a few years back, Dave Andreychuk had played a record regular season and playoff games without winning the Stanely Cup, yet the media has given little attention to this victory especially since Tampa was the laughing stock of the NHL only a few seasons ago. Is it just that very few people care about professional hockey in the United States or have incidents like that of Todd Bertuzzi really maimed the sport in the eyes of the public?

Howard Kurtz: I was surprised by how little coverage the NHL finals got, even with a dramatic seventh game. But as a Post sportswriter recently observed, hockey is in danger of slipping into minor-sport status in the U.S. Television ratings are way down, there may be a strike next season, and I doubt many Americans could name a single player on the Tampa Bay Lightning or Calgary Flames. It's a shame.

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Arlington, Va.: Why was the New York Times' coverage of Reagan's death so skimpy, when the LA Times and the Washington Post devoted page after page to him?

Howard Kurtz: I was surprised the NYT didn't do more, given the amount of time all news organizations had to prepare material in advance.

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Virginia: Howard -- Always enjoy the columns and chats. So Reagan dies; most of the press fawns; a small portion of the left argues that the fawning is inappropriate and that Reagan was evil; the right fires back that the left is disrespectful of the dead and that Clinton is evil. This is an overly simplistic question, I know, but: We sure have gotten mean, haven't we? Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I haven't seen the word "evil" used--even in the '80s, many of Reagan's detractors liked him personally--but it does seem that events of this type provide another excuse for pundits on the right and left to gouge each other's eyes out. Next up: Clinton's book.

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Fairfax Station, Va.: How long ago did the Washington Post start planning for Reagan's death? Not just the obituary -- you've probably had a Reagan obit on file since the 1960s -- but the whole spread. After all, he was 93 and in poor health. It was no secret that he was going to die.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know the exact date, but clearly for several years. Lou Cannon, the Reagan biographer and former White House correspondent who wrote the front-page obit, hasn't been a fulltime staffer here for many years.

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Maryland: When did the Democrats and mainstream media become comfortable referring to Reagan as the Great Communicator? As a twenty-something, I don't really remember the 80's. Did this only occur after he left office?

Howard Kurtz: No, it was widely used at the time. I don't remember who coined it, but it quickly stuck.

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The Estates of Riverdale Park, Md.: Hello Howie,

Do the editors of the Washington Post and New York Times really think anyone will read all the pages they publish about Ronald Reagan?

My fiends and colleagues subscribe to at least one daily newspaper. They listen to NPR. But not one of them read even a tenth of all the material the Post and Times emitted.

How can the editors be so out of touch with reality?

Howard Kurtz: Editors love to overkill major events. They don't necessarily expect every reader to read every story. Some might like the obits, others the analysis of Reagan's foreign or economic policy, others the scene pieces from California. But The Post in particular has engaged in avalanche journalism. I realized this when I turned to the sports section and saw a piece on Reagan's days as a sportscaster, not to mention the arts review of his acting career. I'm sure the Food piece on his favorite recipes can't be far behind.

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Arlington, Va.: Do you feel that far too much is being made about Bush benefiting from Reagan's death, other than finding it rather sad (is there anything politicians won't do for votes?). I really don't understand it. I read the papers but don't follow politics all that closely and I find it hard to understand why Bush and his people think the public equates him with Reagan, he utterly lacks all the charisma and confidence that made Reagan great and made people (like me) vote for him. I know some people love Bush, but I just don't see him being in Reagan's league. They might have similar policies (like tax cuts), but he just doesn't carry himself or give speeches or inspire you the way Reagan did. I just don't understand why the papers expect people to look at Bush and see Reagan, I just see all the things that Reagan had that Bush is totally lacking. Basically my question is why is the media and the Bush campaign are trying to push GW Bush=Reagan, because I just don't see it.

Howard Kurtz: Look, Bush and Reagan are two very different people, and presidents, and I don't think the media are pushing any notion to the contrary. What they're doing is writing about the 43rd president's efforts to position himself as the natural heir to the 40th, and there's some truth in that. It's not just that they both cut taxes and pursued an aggressive foreign policy and liked to spend time at the ranch. I don't think even the most fervent Bush supporter would argue that he is in Reagan's league as a communicator.

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NYT with attempting to come clean: Only one way. Fire Judith Miller.

Let's face facts, "journalism" is the one of few professions where gross incompetence and/or sleazy behavior is swept under the rug. If I were to accept some sales guy's opinions on the vaildity of his software at face value, and then my company's systems collapsed when it failed, I'd be soooo canned.

Yet let Judy blindly accept just as biased a source of info, and she gets all of you journos circling the wagons. It's better than a union!;

You want the public to get some respect back for you folks. Self-serving mea culpas with no consequences won't do it. Show us you take ethics and truth seriously enough to boot someone.

Howard Kurtz: It's hard to make a case for journalistic sins being swept under the rug. The last two major stories I've been involved with -- the lied perpetrated by Jayson Blair at the New York Times and Jack Kelley at USA Today -- led to the dismissals of the top editors at both papers. As for Miller, whatever mistakes she may or may not have made, it was the editors of the New York Times that decided to publish those stories and in some cases splash them on the front page. But the editor who did that, Howell Raines, is already gone.

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DeKalb, Ill.: Dear Howard,
I would like your thoughts on the following? The majority of U.S. citizens respect and, to some extent, admire Ronald Reagan (even though some of that admiration may be the result of looking at history through rose-colored glasses). Any historical evaluation of the Reagan years must address the more controversial and potentially damaging aspects of his administration, but the early stories from the left have an obvious level or raw emotion contained within them. As much as I think John Kerry will try to avoid any "serious" discussions of Reagan policies and issues, do you think his chances for becoming President will take a hit when the negative Reagan stories (such as the Corn and Strupp articles) begin to be circulated by the RNC? I believe that the Kerry campaign is correct in suspending operations this week, why couldn't the chattering class on the left follow his lead?

Howard Kurtz: I think it's not exactly news that Kerry, despite his gracious comments this week, regularly did battle with Reagan. (So, by the way, did most Democratic senators of that era.) Anyone who's not going to support Kerry on that basis probably wasn't going to vote for him anyway.

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Arlington, Va.: Certainly, one effect of Reagan's funeral has been to shut down political campaigning for at least a week. Have you heard anything to suggest that the family asked for all of the pomp and circumstance for the purpose of boosting Bush's stature and temporarily quieting the Kerry campaign?

Howard Kurtz: No. That seems to me an unfair suggestion. The shutting down of the campaigns had nothing to do with Nancy Reagan and her family. The Kerry camp in particular made a judgment that it was going to get close to zero coverage for anything the senator did this week, though I'm not sure why he felt compelled to cancel a pair of big fundraisers this week. It doesn't seem to me to be disrespectful of Reagan to go ahead with previously scheduled concert fundraisers.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Howard,

So is it the new trend of the media to basically write glowing tributes when a President dies? I recall Nixon's obituaries were fairly kind and now the same has happened for Reagan, who while he did good things, also did a lot of questionable acts as well.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know if I'd declare it an official trend, but it does seem that the media have accentuated the positive, to put it mildly, after the last two deaths of American presidents. This is what I wrote after Nixon's 1994 passing:

Nixon's April 22 death forced journalists to try to balance his long career and accomplishments against the scandals that forced him to resign 20 years ago. The normal tendency not to speak ill of the recently departed was reinforced by Nixon's own campaign to rehabilitate his image and the embrace of such former political foes as President Clinton and George McGovern.

But the generally respectful tone of the coverage -- "Nixon Gets Hero's Farewell" (Los Angeles Times); "the most important figure of the postwar era" (Time); "the final years may have been Richard Nixon's greatest triumph" (Wall Street Journal) -- has caused much grumbling among his detractors in the press. "A friend said to me: 'Is this the same Richard Nixon? Did someone else die?' " [Andrew] Sullivan says.

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But the editor who did that, Howell Raines, is already gone.: So what? Yes, the person above me for the bad software choice should be hit too for bad judgement, but I can hardly justify letting me off the hook for screwing up.

This attitude is part and parcel of "circling the wagons". Blaming Raines (mighty convienient since he's gone) doesn't absolve her. She should be sending out resumes as well.

Howard Kurtz: My point remains that editors sometimes take the fall for journalistic mistakes, but in the case of Howell Raines and Iraq, he had already been canned over the Jayson Blair mess. And while Miller's stories may have turned out to be wrong, there's no evidence that she did anything deliberately dishonest.
Thanks for the chat, folks.

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