Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 19, 2005; 12:00 PM

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 was online Monday, Sept. 19, at noon ET to discuss the press and his latest columns.

Read today's Media Notes: The Media Discover the Poor.

The transcript follows.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Howard - Just a comment in light of the NYTimes charging for online comment- when The Washington Post gets around to making this move, I think it's only fair that those who have a dead tree WP subscription should be able to continue to get free online content. Would you agree? Please pass this idea on those who will be making such decisions. Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think washingtonpost.com is going to be charging to read our columnists any time soon, if ever. Should that happen, I'm sure people who pay the big bucks for home delivery will get a free pass, as NYT subscribers are. Maybe I'll start using a slogan: "Media Notes, Still Free of Charge."

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Louisville, Ky.: Fifty dollars for a year's worth of op-eds really isn't that much, and considering the Times has been giving away online content for the last ten years, it's kind of a bargain. However, it's so hard to want to pay for something that was free yesterday. Do you see The Post following suit? The Post's columnists notwithstanding, these discussions are very popular and I know people would pay $50 to be involved.

Also, do you remember a day when a picture of a president writing a bathroom note would be simply considered funny, and left at that? Do we really need to discuss whether or not he actually wrote it? Yeesh.

Howard Kurtz: Again, I see no hint, signal or other sign that The Post is going to file suit. The truth is, 50 bucks a year is not that much, except that all of us have been conditioned to expect news, opinion, video and everything else on the Web to be free. And the problem is that "free"--aside from the online ad revenue generated so far--is not enough to support a big infrastructure of editors, reporters, photographers, etc. So the NYT is obviously doing this as a trial run to figure out what kind of market there might be for paid content.

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Anonymous: On reporting and the poor, I imagine it's true that reporting from the ghetto doesn't goose ratings like the latest Missing White Girl. And I heard Mr. Robinson say yesterday on NBC that problems of race and class don't go away by ignoring them. But can't we ask: have they gone away when the media HAVE spent time on them? Like there's a mathematical formula, that 50 percent more news coverage will cause 50 percent less poverty?

And what would you say to the idea that coverage of the poor tends to disappear when people presume the party in charge loves the poor? Like the way homelessness disappeared in the 1990's...

Howard Kurtz: I don't think for a minute that a greater media focus on poverty will help alleviate poverty, though I suppose it might ratchet up the pressure for politicians to do more, just as Katrina has. But--not to sound too preachy here--we in journalism have a responsibility to cover all of society, and to cover social problems out there, not just to cherry-pick the sexiest or most entertaining issues and market them to an upscale audience. So when thousands of stories are written about New Orleans over the past decade and they're mainly about Mardi Gras and Cajun cooking and not the fact that the city is impoverished and 2/3 black, something, in my view, has gone wrong.

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Boston, Mass.: Hi Howard, love your column.

A great example of the media's recent approach to class and poverty was the NYT's series on class published earlier this year.

It read like a survival guide for the rich, obnoxious and confused. The biggest problem it addressed was how to differentiate yourself from tacky people who drive low end Mercedes and go on annual cruises.

You're right, poverty is so 60's.

Howard Kurtz: I thought it was broader than that, but whatever you thought of the series, at least it was an attempt to tackle a difficult subject.

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Snarky, Va.: Since you're dealing with the poor today, can we wonder if there will be a story about poor people who can no longer afford to read Bob Herbert? Digital divide, indeed.

Howard Kurtz: Talk about cultural deprivation!

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Delmar, N.Y.: Has their been an official announcement from the White House that Karl Rove is in charge of the Gulf reconstruction efforts? If not why have their been some reports such as from Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo Web site that this is the case? If it is true where is the outrage? Rove's qualification as a political operative who is currently under scrutiny in the Plame matter would seem to make him as qualified to oversee reconstruction as Michael Brown was to be head of FEMA.

Howard Kurtz: Whatever you think of Rove, that strikes me as unfair. He's a political guy, sure, but he's the deputy chief of staff and was involved in the substance of almost all major domestic issues in the first term. The symbolism of naming Rove might be a problem, since he is a divisive symbol, but in terms of policy he's no Michael Brown.

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Iowa: Deja vu! The Post reports this morning that the administration is using enemy body counts to bolster their claims of progress in Iraq. Some of us still remember the follow-ups after the Vietnam War that cast serious doubts on the veracity of those always impressive body counts of dead Viet Cong that we heard from the DOD during those years. This would not seem to be the best measure of success to be citing in Iraq.

Howard Kurtz: Fair point, but it's one way to measuring something concrete in a war where progress is very difficult to quantify. Then again, it doesn't matter how many insurgents the U.S. military kills if there are legions of others to take their place.

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Frederick, Md.: Interesting piece on the lack of poverty stories in the past few years. Tell me, have you done a database search on the phrase "class warfare"? Because it seems as if the op-editorialists have been actively trying to take class issues off the table for years now.

Howard Kurtz: Class warfare is a charge that Republicans frequently hurl at Democrats when they complain that tax cuts for the rich (or fill in the blank) are hurting those who are less well off. Democrats sometimes use the same epithet to characterize administration policies. But that strikes me as intellectually lazy shorthand. Of course we should have a vigorous debate over how taxes and spending should be distributed in this country. Should Congress go ahead and repeal the estate tax, which affects a tiny fraction of the richest rich people, or spend more money on Katrina victims? If anything, the disaster in New Orleans will probably sharpen the debate.

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2/3 Black and Poor...: ...frankly, that describes many of the largest core cities in America, which is why it's not news.

How about all of the LA politicians that are currently facing/under corruption indictments now hoping to siphon off enough "rebuilding" cash to hire good lawyers? Now there's a story with sex appeal.

Howard Kurtz: I think your math is off, but there's no question that poverty is a big problem in many major cities whose popularity is heavily minority. (There are plenty of poor whites, too, especially in some rural areas.) How does that make it "not news"? That's like saying it's not news that cancer or heart attacks kill millions of people because it happens every year. Is poverty worth a story only when the annual Census report comes out and shows that it has increased? Not in my book.

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Portland, Maine: I thought tacky ads are what generated revenue for the online department. I have a monkey eating bananas symbolizing the 50 states while I try to read this chat. I might be persuaded to pay $50 for an ad free Post or Times.

Howard Kurtz: That's what Salon does - charges $35 a year for people to be spared the annoying ads. But if you simply gated off an important area to those who did not pay some annual fee, I have no doubt the overall traffic of your Web site would nosedive. The L.A. Times, incidentally, recently abandoned an effort to charge a fee to read its Calendar section online.

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New York, N.Y.: You're being extremely naive. Karl Rove's qualifications are that he is the chief political spin-meister. The president is in deep political trouble for bungling the situation, so he sends his political guru to fix it. This should be widely reported on more than just left-wing blog sites.

Howard Kurtz: But it has been widely reported. It's been in The Washington Post, for example.

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Monroe, N.Y.: I wanted to comment on your question yesterday on Late Edition regarding reporting in Louisiana: if 80% of New Orleans is in poverty -and, I'll add, perhaps illiterate, why haven't we heard about it?

There are cities in throughout U.S. where this is true. Wealthier people have left many cities, of all sizes, to avoid perceived crime and taxes thought to support the poor (it was these attitudes, in part, that brought G.W. Bush and the Republicans into office in my opinion).

I expect you would agree that the President and Congress should champion this issue? At least, the Democrats and the press have a responsibility to push accountability on this issue (and the increasing budget deficit IMHO).

Howard Kurtz: I'm not offering any policy prescriptions. I'm simply saying that if many of America's major cities are straining under the weight of poverty, and there is a racial aspect to this, and the middle class is leaving, that strikes me as one of the more important stories of our time, not one we should just dip into when disaster strikes.

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Columbia, Md.: Howard, since the President stated that the federal response to Katrina was unacceptable and he is accountable for that response, do you think the media will question him as to what mistakes he made in preparing the nation for man-made and natural disasters? I hope the media aggressively pursues that line of questioning.

Howard Kurtz: Reporters have tried in several recent instances. They mostly got "let's not play the blame game" answers until Bush accepted responsibility in his New Orleans speech last Thursday night.

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Washington, D.C.: Let me ask a business question here: if it takes 50 bucks (or so) to get a news magazine for a year, why would you get something so insubstantial as NY Times columnists when you get much more news for your dollar elsewhere?

Howard Kurtz: The Times response is that it's also offering video, online-only content and full access to its archives. Whether that's worth the price of a magazine subscription is up to the people who are being asked to pony up.

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Alexandria, Va.: Mr. Kurtz,

There have been reports that Michael Kinsley has left the LAT and come to The Post. But, I haven't heard anything else about this. Is this true? What is his role here?

Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: Yup, I wrote about it last week.

Michael Kinsley, L.A. Times Part on 'Unfortunate Note'

Basically, he's going to keep writing his column and do a little consulting with the Web site.

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Paying for The Post: I would be delighted to pay for access to washingtonpost.com. I love The Post, and I read most of what I read online. I have a subscription mainly because I feel morally obligated to pay for something I like and learn from and that I know costs lots of bucks to produce.

But this means that I am paying for newsprint that I don't read and having to haul it to the recycling plant whenever the stack gets too high. (I live in an apartment; the recycling procedures here are even more inconvenient than going to the recycling station down the street.)

This is not an ecologically sound approach to obtaining news, and it's a pain in the a-- as well. Please, charge me for web access!

Howard Kurtz: Feel free to send me 10 bucks a year for the privilege of reading my columns if it makes you feel better.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: I admire your optimism that because of Katrina, American media will now begin concentrating on issues like poverty in this nation. Call me cynical, but come the next cute, young, rather well-off white woman goes missing, and it will be "Hurricane, what hurricane?" As it is, Greta, Hannity and Scarborough must be going nuts not being able to give us up-to-the-minute details on Natalee.

Howard Kurtz: But I'm not terribly optimistic. I think it's an opportunity for the media, but it's just as likely that this will all be washed away when the next big story comes along, and when the focus shifts from rescuing people to the now-scattered poor trying to rebuild their lives (a slow process that offers no dramatic pictures).

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Raleigh, N.C.: Reading your article today, I was happy to see The Post endorse John Roberts. He comes across as one of the most intelligent lawyers that I've ever seen. He mentioned the other day that a good lawyer could win either side of a case, and I believe that to be true in his case. It also offers an explanation as to why he did some of the pro-bono work he did.

However, you also mentioned that the NYT is opposed to John Roberts in that they aren't sure of his qualifications. How can they not believe that he is qualified after watching the confirmation hearings? Is this just another case of the Times being biased?

Howard Kurtz: Bias is not a question here. The editorial pages of the Post and Times are SUPPOSED to offer their opinions on the issues of the day. The Times is saying that Roberts is legally qualified but dodged so many questions at his confirmation hearings that senators should not reward him with their votes. That may or may not be persuasive, but it's the prerogative of an editorial page.

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Laurel, Md.: About poverty as non-news:

But isn't one reason it doesn't get much coverage because:

1. News organizations' diversity guidelines prescribe that they can't publish too many articles and photos of minority group members as poor, sub-educated, or crime perpetrators/victims

2. Social activists complain when too many stories like 1. are published

You can argue chicken/egg about which of 1 and 2 motivates the other. But isn't it true, or at least a reasonable characterization, that news organizations don't want to feed the black-as-poor stereotype, even when true?

Howard Kurtz: I would disagree, though there's no shortage of PC thinking in newsrooms. What news organizations are trying to do is not portray minorities ONLY as criminals and welfare recipients on one hand or focus on Tiger Woods, Oprah and Condoleezza Rice on the other. In other words, there is a broad black middle class out there whose lives should also be reflected in the coverage, but that shouldn't limit coverage of poverty and related issues.

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Washington, D.C.: Regarding the NYT paid online content: The Post's Web site, thanks in no small part to online chats like this one, and your terrific Media Notes Extra column, has left the Times site well behind. The only news here is that the Times has found a way to somehow pound a nail into its own coffin. I expect that I have pretty much no reason to visit that site any longer as I get similar reporting and better commentary (for free!) at washingtonpost.com

I'm not subscribing to a paper paper in any event.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for the endorsement. But nytimes.com has a big following (as you'd expect for a national newspaper, which The Post isn't) and I'm sure the folks in Manhattan will be very happy if this experiment brings in a few million dollars that can then be invested in the Web site.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Dear Mr. Kurtz,

I have been following the news in Iraq (as has everyone I suppose) recently. Why have I not seen any front page success stories? I'm sure schools are now running, hospitals are better and, in general, some of the quality of life issues are better for at least some Iraqis. Is the old motto true: "If it bleeds, it leads"? Don't get me wrong, I'm no supporter of the war in Iraq and think we went there under what now appears complete folly. But, here does seem to me to be some one sided reporting on the deaths and not enough good news (if there is any). Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: There have been occasional success story pieces. But I just excerpted a Newsweek report on a U.S.-arranged trip to a successful school that then got overshadowed when more than 100 people were killed in a wave of bombings. The correspondent also said that security was extraordinary for the visiting press contingent, raising the question of how safe the cities are.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Howard, the bit you did yesterday on CNN's "Reliable Sources" about reporters letting their emotions show while reporting on Katrina to me proves again that, despite U.S. media denials, American lives are more important than foreign lives to them.

Where was the outrage from Shepherd Smith and Anderson Cooper when we were obliterating whole Iraqi neighborhoods during "shock and awe," killing thousands of innocent civilians, children who got their limbs blown off by our "smart bombs?"

Also, during Katrina coverage, suicide bombers killed 152 and injured more than 400 in one day in Iraq. That barely got covered. You think that would have been the case had 152 American soldiers been killed that day?

Howard Kurtz: If your point is that American news organizations care more about the deaths of Americans that the deaths of people in other countries, I'd have a hard time arguing with you. But these same outlets did devote extraordinary resources to covering the impact of the tsunami in places like Sri Lanka. Still, the notion that close to home is more newsworthy is deeply embedded in the journalistic psyche (and, I suspect, in those of readers and viewers). It's why the Miami Herald heavily covers crime in that city and not in Seattle, and is true of every local newspaper and TV station I can think of.

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El Segundo, Calif.: Dear Howard,

The MSM coverage of the Katrina disaster affecting the poor has earned much-deserved accolades. There have been some articles mentioning the problem coming soon of the difficulties Gulf-area victims will have with the new bankruptcy law due to take effect in October. Anything in the offing about that?

As a side note, all the reporting done by the MSM has prompted some town hall meetings about more extensive disaster preparedness here in the L.A. area even before the recent L.A. Times headline about the Southland being ill-prepared - big surprise! Keep it up.

Howard Kurtz: Every major newspaper in America, including this one, has done a piece on whether their metropolitan area is prepared for a disaster of Katrina-like dimensions, and the answer has almost always been no.

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Bealeton, Va.: But couldn't you make the case that is precisely the black middle-class people of New Orleans who are invisible in this story? Has anyone done a story on a black middle-class family that evacuated? There's not as much drama in that, I'm guessing?

Howard Kurtz: Sure, I've seen such stories about families black and white. And for those whose homes were destroyed or whose jobs have vanished, rebuilding their lives is going to be very difficult. Yes, this lacks the drama of those who either couldn't or didn't evacuate and wound up in hellholes like the Superdome, but is no less an important element of the saga of New Orleans.

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Bethesda, Md.: Howie, Love these chats. Turning to Iraq, I'm wondering why the media hasn't made mention over the last couple of years about the Saddam having tried to assassinate Bush Sr. back in the 90's. I'm not an advocate for or against the war, but isn't it a legitimate question as to whether that fact influenced or accelerated W's decision to go to war? And not only is it a worthy question, the answer would be instructive too -- who in the same position could deny some element of revenge? I'm stunned no one has asked W about it. Again I'm raising a media issue, not espousing a cause Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: It was mentioned with some regularity during the runup to war -- sometimes by those who questioned whether W. was trying to avenge his father -- but since Saddam was toppled, I'd say the story, and the media, have moved on.

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Oakland, Calif.: I'm an African American in a city that has significant issues with poverty, racism, drugs, and crime. I'm not surprised by the lack of attention these issues get in the press, because they're very difficult to cover. Little things like individual teacher flight, the closing of local manufacturing and service businesses, and petty property crimes just don't make for good coverage.

My question is this -- can we ever expect coverage of other issues to include information on their consequences? For example, you simply cannot have a "free market" for healthcare, because free markets don't work in the case of such extreme price inelasticity. People will pay their last dollar to stay alive; exploitation of people for profits will inevitably result.

Or can we expect coverage of the estate tax to include the inherent impossibility of equal opportunity without some sort of estate tax?

What is preventing this kind of analysis and coverage now? It seems the media has become so afraid of being called liberal that it's abdicated its duties.

Howard Kurtz: I actually don't think these issues are that difficult to cover (compared to, say, a war). It's a challenge to make them into compelling stories, but that's what we in journalism do for a living. If one family breadwinner loses a job and goes on welfare, that's not much of a story. If it happens to hundreds or thousands of people in a city, that's a trend story that the press should be all over. We do this with lots of issues affecting the affluent, such as the growth of McMansions or whether homeowners will be hurt if the housing bubble pops. I just think we should include all races and classes. And to be fair, there are some journalists who have specialized in this and done a terrific job, but it's a relatively small group.

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Rockville, Md.: This seems to be the second time a NYT "public editor" has gone public with criticism of Paul Krugman. In neither case have the criticisms seemed that compelling - the alleged distortions, if that's what they are, seem kind of run-of-the-mill for opinion columnists. I'm wondering, does Krugman just rub these guys the wrong way?

Howard Kurtz: Hard to say, but it's interesting that both public editors have tangled with him in a relatively short span of time.

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Re. Tsunami coverage: "But these same outlets did devote extraordinary resources to covering the impact of the tsunami in places like Sri Lanka." Yes, they did. But let's also be realistic. They did it because the tsunami gave them dramatic pictures. When was the last time you heard a report on CNN, Fox, MSNBC about Sri Lanka. Two train crashes earlier this year - one in Japan, one in Sri Lanka. The latter was horrible. Guess which one got covered by American media?

Howard Kurtz: I agree that dramatic pictures make television, in particular, more likely to cover a faraway disaster.

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New York, N.Y.: Howard,

Do you really think the The Post isn't a national newspaper?

To paraphrase Sen. Orrin Hatch (re John Roberts), "If that isn't a national newspaper, what is?"

Howard Kurtz: It's not a national newspaper in the sense that--unlike the NYT, WSJ and USA--it isn't sold in 50 states. Very difficult to buy a copy outside of D.C., Maryland and Virginia. It's national in scope, of course, and the Web has made it into a global media outlet, but only in cyberspace.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Do you think that the reason John Roberts is expected to be confirmed easily is because that the press and pundits said so the night he was announced? It seems that the Democrats cause has been lost from the beginning.

Howard Kurtz: Not the night he was announced, no. But within the first couple of weeks, a media consensus formed that Bush had "threaded the needle" by picking an establishment conservative who lacked the incendiary paper trail or other controversial qualities that would trigger a Democratic filibuster. That also reflected what reporters were hearing from senators in both parties. If some of the Roberts memos that were later released had been more explosive, that consensus might have shifted. But they weren't, and it didn't.

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Katrina: The Long-Term Consequences: I fear you may be right about the press (and the rest of us) turning away from news of what happens in MS and LA when the images become less compelling and other events come along to distract us.

But I hope you will keep the heat on your colleagues about this. Billions of dollars are being shipped into a situation where there is great need, great potential for waste, and lots of disagreements as to how the money will be spent. This is an issue of concern to anyone who pays taxes.

And we can learn a lot about what helps people start anew by following the Katrina victims. These stories can help to inform national discussions about preparedness, as well as about what it means to care for people who need help.

Howard Kurtz: I will do my best in the heat department. One good sign is that some of the networks and other news organizations are opening bureaus in New Orleans.

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Nashville, Tenn.: I noticed that your column footnote on a database search for press coverage during Brown's confirmation hearings. You failed to mention that even as deputy director of FEMA, Brown received only a 42 minute hearing, just one more reason why an independent commission is required on Katrina inquiry. Google "42 Minutes of Shame" for details

Howard Kurtz: Yes, I saw that but didn't have room for it. He never had a confirmation hearing because of the shift of FEMA to Homeland Security, but if he had I'm not sure it would have been much different.

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Reporting on the poor: Another reason that "poor blacks dominate city cores" doesn't get covered a lot is that recognizing middle-class flight means that at least some of the Great Society programs wound up creating the culture of dependency that made the situation what it is. I suspect that many of those in power in the MSM are loath to make that admission.

Howard Kurtz: That's your conclusion. Clinton bought that analysis to an extent, which is why he signed a welfare reform bill. Another view would be that poverty is so ingrained across generations that government programs alone can't wipe it out. Another would be that we don't spend enough money on these programs because the poor don't vote in large numbers. Another would be that family breakdown, not the level of government spending, is the key issue, as evidence by the large number of poor families headed by single mothers. I don't claim to have all the answers, but I think journalism needs to do a better job asking these questions.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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