Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, January 7, 2008; 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 "Reality Show: Insider the Last Great Television News War," "Media Circus," "Hot Air," "Spin Cycle" and "The Fortune Tellers: Inside Wall Street's Game of Money, Media and Manipulation." Kurtz talked about the press and the stories of the day in "Media Backtalk."

The transcript follows.

Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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Albany, N.Y.: Howard, this may be the second election in a row in which the Democratic nomination was essentially decided in Iowa. Do you think that is because voters in different states largely think alike, or is there something about the media coverage that makes this more likely now than in earlier elections? Thank you for your good work.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think it has to do with small states or large states but first states. Look at the ride that Obama is getting for winning the caucuses. On the basis of one vote that requires people to be available for several hours at night, he's being hailed as a winner and Hillary denigrated as a loser. This is the media-driven Iowa bounce. Some already are saying Obama can wrap up the nomination by winning New Hampshire tomorrow. I don't know whether that's true or not, but it was certainly true that after Iowa catapulted John Kerry to victory in New Hampshire, the race essentially was over. The picture is more muddled, obviously, on the Republican side, where Mike Huckabee is not going to win New Hampshire.

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Somerdale, N.J.: Howie, today in your column about Rudy and the press, you quote him as saying there is a liberal bias in the media. It seems to me that you never miss a chance to bring up the liberal media charges by the GOP. I was wondering do you really believe that the MSM has a liberal bias or do you believe that it is a myth created by conservatives. If you believe it is a myth, why do you keep allowing it into your columns and shows? Why perpetuate the myth -- unless you really believe it. Please clear this up.

washingtonpost.com: Rudy Battles the Press (Post, Jan. 7)

Howard Kurtz: I'm a reporter. As a reporter, I interview people. This is what a presidential candidate told me, and I published it. Liberal bias, alleged or otherwise, is obviously a complicated issue that I have tried to explore many times over the years. But if I'm writing about Giuliani and that's what he says, I report it, try to add context, and readers can make up their own minds.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi. How can Parade Magazine publish and the Washington Post distribute (Sunday, Jan. 6) a cover story about Benazir Bhutto's prospects in Pakistan, despite the fact that she's dead? I mean, shouldn't The Post know that lionizing a dead political future two weeks after her assassination is a little less than "on the ball"? Did The Post's editors even look at the insert cover, or do they distribute everything that comes over the transom (as long as the check clears)? Is anyone at The Post or Parade apologizing? Shoddy!

washingtonpost.com: Parade Stands By Bhutto Cover (Post, Jan. 7)

Howard Kurtz: It's hard for me to understand why Parade didn't pull the magazine, but an editor there said he felt it was important for readers to see one of Bhutto's last interviews. The Post dealt with it with a front-page note explaining that the magazine had gone to press before the assassination.

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Washington: Howard, I always love your articles and chats and of course your CNN show as you are always so informed! Maybe you will know happened to the anchorman who used to substitute for Ted Koppel a lot on "Nightline." Was his name Chris Beruy? Boray? I had not seen him or Michel Martin on the newer "Nightline," where I do still sometimes see John Donvan. Thank you, Howard.

washingtonpost.com: Chris Bury

Howard Kurtz: Chris Bury has become a national correspondent for ABC News after years of great work on Nightline.

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Baltimore: I watched a lot of analysis and punditry over the past weekend and during the Iowa caucuses. Is it my imagination, or does Chris Matthews really have it in for Sen. Clinton? He goes out of his way time and again to disparage her and her campaign in a way I don't see anyone else (other than Fox Noise). This is saying a lot given the media disdain for the Clintons. Do you see a pattern with Chris Matthews and his negative coverage of Hillary?

Howard Kurtz: He's an opinion guy and there's no question he's been rough on her. Yesterday he asked a question of Hillary (about the war) at a public forum, and when he started following up she said "I'm not on your show" and questioned the "obsession" some men have with her. Afterward he pinched her cheek and she gave him a hug. Go figure.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: I was disappointed in how ABC handled the debate format Saturday. I am tired of Candidate A saying how bad Candidate B is, and the format and questioning only reinforced it. Charles Gibson should not have asked a candidate what he or she thought of another candidate's policies, but what the candidate themself believed or planned. I think this is also true for the media in general. For example, Mike Huckabee had a press conference to say he wasn't going to use a negative ad, showed what he wasn't going to use, and then got all of the media to use it. Huh? Where's the news? Nancy Reagan had it right: Just say no!

washingtonpost.com: ABC's Gibson, Trying to Set The Table for Meatier Debates (Post, Dec. 31)

Howard Kurtz: Well, I have the opposite view. We've had one debate after another that was essentially the candidates vs. the moderator. This was the first debate where the candidates got to engage each other without strict time limits or much intervention by the moderator. Charlie had told me last week he was going to take a largely hands-off approach, and while its success certainly is debatable, I thought it yielded two enlightening face-offs, especially on the Republican side.

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Arlington, Va.: I for one was eager to read the Parade interview with Benazir Bhutto. They did exactly the right thing in not pulling the interview or the cover photo.

Howard Kurtz: Duly noted. Obviously it would have been nice if the magazine could have acknowledged her death, but it was shipped before the tragedy.

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Arlington, Va.: Howard, why no mention in your column of Bill O'Reilly shoving an Obama aide so much that the shoving caused the intervention of the Secret Service? This happened on Saturday night, and reading about it online this morning is the first I've heard of it.

Howard Kurtz: It's in my blog this morning, with links to the video. The column is devoted to my New Hampshire swing with Rudy Giuliani and analysis of how the press is treating him. Unlike in the online world, I don't have unlimited space.

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Prescott, Ariz.: John Edwards has been on a tear lately about how corporations have been dictating the path of America and the need for average people to demand their country back. Now, you and 90 percent of the media work for corporations. Does this bring up a conflict of interest in trying to be fair and objective towards the guy? Is this why the media is trying to pretend he doesn't exist? I mean the No. 4 guy on the Republican side, McThompson or whatever his name is, gets more press than Edwards. What would have happened if Edwards had won Iowa?

Howard Kurtz: I agree that Edwards largely has been overshadowed by Hillary and Obama, but it has nothing to do with corporations owning the big news organizations. (By the way, Newsweek -- owned by the very corporation for which I work -- put him on the cover a few weeks ago.) If Edwards had won Iowa, which most reporters thought was at least a possibility, he'd be getting the kind of saturation coverage that Obama is drawing now -- but the media have decided, fairly or unfairly, that Iowa was Edwards's best shot at winning the nomination. He's running third in the New Hampshire polls at the moment.

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Anonymous: Could you take a minute and explain to us what the media's obsession with John McCain is? After spending three days' canvassing and going out to the shows (the speeches) in New Hampshire this weekend, I couldn't find any enthusiasm for McCain. People are exited about Huckabee, Paul, Obama, Hillary and Edwards ... but there is no excitement for McCain, Mitt or Thompson. But you guys in the media, you loves the man who came in fourth in Iowa! (Not saying he won't win New Hampshire, just there's no passion or excitement for him.)

Howard Kurtz: Well, but if McCain wins New Hampshire, which is a very real possibility, it's a terrific comeback story. The guy's fundraising collapsed last summer, his top advisers left, he was down in the polls, and now he may duplicate his feat of 2000. He's been drawing good crowds and won the endorsement of virtually every newspaper in New Hampshire. Now I don't deny that many reporters like McCain, and they certainly like his round-the-clock availability to the press on bus tours and the like. But if McCain were lagging in New Hampshire, he wouldn't be getting any of this positive press.

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Nashua, N.H.: I went to see several candidates this weekend, and think some journalists are misconstruing the size of crowds at Obama events. I noticed at two of his events (one I did attend yesterday as well as one I couldn't get into on Saturday) that a sizable plurality of the cars had out-of-state plates. The media fuss over Obama seems to be drawing people across state lines (lots of cars from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey) for the political spectacle -- so who knows how many of those in attendance are actually New Hampshire voters in a position to shape tomorrow's outcome. The other candidates' events seemed to me to have a lot more New Hampshire plates in the parking lots.

Howard Kurtz: But even if that's true, the man is drawing phenomenal crowds. And the polls -- which may be wrong, but weren't in Iowa, at least the final Des Moines Register poll -- are limited to New Hampshire residents, and they show Obama taking a double-digit lead.

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Reading, Mass.: Howie, love the column -- I have a question for you regarding "political" reporters. Within the industry, what is the mentality of their responsibility to "fact-check" within an article? Why does The Post need a separate fact-checker, as I thought fact-checking should go on within each article. I'm thinking particularly of an article on the Saturday debates, recalling Clinton's statements on Obama saying he'll vote against the Patriot Act, then getting to the Senate and voting for it. The article didn't follow up and say whether or not that was accurate, just replayed the statement -- and I for one would like to know if she was being truthful or not. I don't want to have to go to another column to find out. Also, Charlie Gibson is so out of touch if he thinks two professors at Saint Anselm or two New York public school teachers hit the $200,000 income mark. Appalling. Thank you.

Howard Kurtz: First, Gibson clearly made a mistake on that and quickly backed off.

Second, every reporter tries to act as his or her own fact-checker. Michael Dobbs's campaign role as the Pinocchio guy doesn't let the rest of us off the hook. But when you're filing from a laptop on a bus at 6:30 p.m. and trying to sort out conflicting claims about Romney's and Huckabee's record on taxes from their terms as governor, it's not always the easiest thing to do. So it's a great idea to have someone dedicated to separating fact from fiction and having the time to do that. I try to play the same role with the candidates' ads.

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Arlington, Va.: Charlie Gibson has got himself in trouble with the education establishment by noting that two Saint Anselm professors probably earn about $200,000 a year. So how much does Charlie Gibson make each year?(Estimate is okay.).

Howard Kurtz: Several million dollars.

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Austin, Texas: I recall that you were critical about the Democrats refusing to debate on Fox News. Myself, I thought they were right not to legitimate a network that is the unofficial GOP network -- but I could understand that it is in the financial interest of pundits to pretend that isn't a fact in order to make money from Fox by appearing on it. I'm wondering what you think of Fox now censoring who gets to appear on its GOP debates? Should the network be fined for this? After all, I believe keeping Ron Paul off the debate even after the New Hampshire GOP withdrew from it for that very reason must violate the compact that networks make to rent the public airwaves.

Howard Kurtz: Fined by whom? The government doesn't regulate editorial decisions by news organizations.

Each network has set up its own criteria for who is included in its debates. ABC, for instance, excluded Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel, among others. Fox excluded Paul. This makes their fans unhappy, obviously, but the rationale is that it makes more sense to limit the debates, at this stage, to the people who have a plausible chance of becoming president.

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New York: Hi Howard, thanks for the chat. I though Charlie Gibson did a fine job with the Sunday debates, except for one question. He asked all the GOP candidates to compare themselves to Obama. Now, I realize the GOP has been running against Hillary Clinton, and Iowa has shifted the ground, but it seemed a throwaway question that gave the candidates yet one more opportunity to sloganeer. Your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: As I recall, he asked them Saturday how they would run against Obama, noting that much of their past debates had been taken up with shots at Hillary Clinton. I thought it was revealing that Huckabee tried to separate himself by saying some complimentary things about Obama.

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Carrboro, N.C.: Howard, thank you so much for doing these chats. Although I don't always agree with your media analysis, I always find myself reading your chats -- so you must be doing something right! I've heard several commentators use the phrase "Royal Family of the Democratic Party" to describe the Clintons. As a lifelong Democrat and rabid antimonarchist, it's certainly news to me that my party had designated any family as our royalty. I get that Bill Clinton holds a special place in the hearts of many Democrats, but I think describing the Clintons as royalty is a little much.

What's most disturbing to me is how often I've heard this exact phrase used after the Iowa elections by different reporters from several different outlets. It seems often that political pundits, analysts -- and, sometimes, beat reporters -- grab on to key phrases or "the story" and repeat it until it becomes conventional wisdom. Do you see this as a trend in modern media, or am I just being a paranoid partisan?

Howard Kurtz: I think it's shorthand for the fact that they are the most prominent family in the party, with a big political machine, and that it would be unprecedented if a wife was elected to the presidency eight years after her husband left the White House. Of course they're not royalty, and based on the campaign so far, they're not infallible, either.

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Boston: What's the story with WNBC running a bogus baseball player steroid list ahead of the Mitchell Report's release last week? Where did they get their list (which turned out to be wrong) and what is your view on how they handled the decision to run the list and then try to pull it back in? Have they explained what happened to your satisfaction?

washingtonpost.com: WNBC's Bogus Steroids Scoop (The Smoking Gun, Dec. 14)

Howard Kurtz: No. It was actually online, not on the air, but it was a horrible mistake. And where is the great scoop in running such a story two hours before the report is going to be released to the world? If you're going to do that, of course, it helps to be right.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Follow-up to my earlier post: Should the media have covered Huckabee's "I'm not going to air this ad" event? Where was the news, and where was the media's common sense?

Howard Kurtz: It was absolutely news. The Iowa front-runner calls a news conference to play his first negative ad against Mitt Romney, then melodramatically announces that he's decided against running it, and then plays it for reporters anyway in an apparent attempt to have it both ways? What a telling moment in terms of Huckabee's style and judgment. And Huckabee can hardly complain, since he invited reporters to the event in the first place.

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Houston: Howard, would you please comment on ABC/Facebook debate? I'm wondering why ABC did not mention Ron Paul won their poll of GOP candidates. Any comment about excluding Kucinich?

Howard Kurtz: ABC set its criteria in advance: Top four finishers in Iowa, and then anyone who had polled at a certain level in either New Hampshire or nationally. As long as it's not aimed at any one candidate, you've got to set the bar somewhere.

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Reading, Mass.: Okay, re: fact-checker, that actually makes sense. It's a bit of a shame that the new form of "instant" news constrains that aspect of reporting. Thanks for the response.

Howard Kurtz: Well, but this was just as true 40 years ago if you were on deadline for the next day's paper and didn't have time to sort out charges about a candidate's record. But the fact that we're all blogging certainly can exacerbate the problem. Remember Hillary allegedly not leaving a tip in the Iowa restaurant? Classic example.

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New York: Have I missed it, or has Obama escaped the scrutiny afforded the likes or Rudy, Huckabee, Clinton, Romney or Edwards? Maybe he would make the best president of the lot, but when the story of Campaign 2008 is written, I think the media should do a lot of reflection about their seeming inability to probe into Obama's days in the Illinois legislature. I'm not suggesting there's any dirt there (there probably isn't any), I just don't know!

Howard Kurtz: As I've mentioned before, Obama clearly hasn't gotten the kind of fierce scrutiny that most front-runners are subjected to. The question is whether that will change in the days and weeks ahead.

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Columbia, Md.: Congratulations, Howie! Finally someone is talking about the promiscuous use of anonymous sources. It has to be news to warrant this privilege, otherwise the privilege and even what was said and not attributed becomes meaningless. But why do reporters continue to do this? At what point does one cease to be a professional and simply become a conduit (putting it kindly) for malicious gossip and spin? Do reporters really value their ability to shape public opinion so low that scurrilous attacks have become de rigueur?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know. I guess because it's cheap and easy. We all like sexy quotes. I've taken my stand against it. As I've written, I have no problem granting anonymity to campaign officials to talk candidly about their own candidate or strategy. But to give them a free shot at rival candidates, when that is precisely what they're paid to do, is just hard to fathom.

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Arlington, Va.: I've been searching The Post Web site now for about 15 minutes, but cannot find your blog. Please post a link!

washingtonpost.com: Media Notes

Howard Kurtz: There it is. And you can always just search for my name.

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Re: Bias "Myth": Howard, I'm guessing your previous questioner doesn't want to allow the Republicans to complain about the news media. If anyone has a right, it's Rudy -- the way they've taken after his personal life would make Ken Starr blush. Did you engage him on the idea that there's a double standard between Clinton adulteries and his?

Howard Kurtz: I asked him about the coverage of his wife and the flap over the security costs, but in the limited time I had we did not get into any Clinton comparisons. One obvious difference is that the Clintons stayed married and Rudy and his previous wife did not.

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Rolla, Mo.: On the Des Moines Register endorsement of Sen. Clinton, did the makeup of that editorial board warrant a mention, as it was seven women and one man? Just curious, because an editorial board consisting of seven African Americans and one Caucasian endorsing Obama likely would have been noted prominently in the coverage of the endorsement, correct?

Howard Kurtz: It was six women and one man. Here is what the editorial page editor, Carol Hunter, told me before the endorsement:

"It will cause all sorts of second-guessing. We can't win. If we endorse her, it will be 'Well, of course.' If we don't, there will be all sorts of questions raised about why."

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Ashland, Mo.: With respect to younger reporters, isn't there a difference between Watergate and political reporting? The former was more or less straight factual reporting whereas much of political reporting is analysis, background and fortune-telling. Wouldn't a few more years of experience be useful in those contexts, instead of the same wrong analysis, e.g., the "money primary" predicts the winner?

Howard Kurtz: Some of the savviest and most experienced political reporters around often rely heavily on polls and money, a mistake that seems to bite them in the rear every four years. By those standards, Mike Huckabee should have never won Iowa. Experience helps, as it does on any beat, but I don't think we should blame the media's campaign shortcomings on younger reporters.

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The "love" for the Clinton: Howard: One of my pet peeves about pundits is the continued statement that Democrats "love" Bill Clinton. I think that's been overstated all along and the election results are proving it. Speaking as one Democrat, I generally liked and greatly admired him, but couldn't love a guy who produced so much self-inflicted damage that his party couldn't hold on to the presidency.

Howard Kurtz: If you believe the polls, Bill Clinton remains the most popular figure in the Democratic Party. Yet I think it's fair to say many Democrats have mixed feelings about him, especially after he blew up his second term with an affair. And even some of those who have moved on from that have qualms about what role he would play in a Hillary White House and whether his presence makes it look like she's running for a restoration of the '90s. I think some of this has been reflected in the coverage but that we often lapse into shorthand.

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Helena, Mont.: Before the Iowa caucuses, Anne Kornblut wrote a story about Hillary Clinton going on the press bus with bagels and coffee, attempting some small talk with press, and getting a stone cold silent reception. After Sen. Clinton left, one of the reporters commented that it was like meeting an old ex-girlfriend. Is this the kind of professional journalism we should expect?

Howard Kurtz: I think it was a blog posting, and the point was that it was so unusual for Hillary to engage the press that way.

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Roseland, N.J.: Did you ask Rudy at all about his old theme, "Only I can beat Hillary Clinton," in light of the new campaign dynamics? Does he plan on arguing that only he can beat Barack Obama?

Howard Kurtz: Our interview was squeezed in between campaign events, so most of what he said is in the piece. We also talked about his proposal for a surge of troops in Afghanistan and expanding the military, which I put in a separate story.

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McLean, Va.: You just said: "You've got the set the bar somewhere" referring to the candidates inclusion in debates. The bar should be set so that all candidates can participate. The media should not be deciding who is and who isn't a viable candidate. All candidates should be included at every debate. Let the voters decide!

washingtonpost.com: All the candidates?

Howard Kurtz: There are literally dozens of people running for president. Should we include them all?

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St. Paul, Minn.: Howard: I understand he is a passionate right-winger but it seemed to me that Bill Kristol's first New York Times column was intentionally intended to tick off Democrats. Do you agree?

Howard Kurtz: Maybe. Wouldn't be the first time. But it seemed to me more aimed at Republicans, telling them they shouldn't underestimate Huckabee's appeal.

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Springfield, Mass.: Hello. I am wondering how much effect the spouses of the candidates generally have on voters. Beyond the Clintons, I am struck by how the wives are dressed and groomed -- does someone advise the spouses what to wear, what to do with make up and hair? I am a woman and wonder if we are supposed to feel a kinship to the spouse -- what actually brought this question to mind is comparing Mrs. Obama to Mrs. Huckabee -- there is a remarkable difference in hair and clothing, whereas all the men -- even Bill Clinton -- wear blue or black suits.

Howard Kurtz: It's one of those intangibles. Obviously Bill Clinton is a special case. Elizabeth is certainly a vocal advocate for John Edwards, and Michelle Obama seems to be drawing good reviews. But how many voters are influenced by spouses? Did Teresa's odd ways hurt John Kerry? How much do Rudy's marital problems hurt him? I don't know how you measure these things.

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McCain's Appeal: McCain is that he is every conservative's second choice. We may not love him, but he's a good man, and we'd certainly vote for him over any of the three leading liberals.

Howard Kurtz: He could be the last man standing, in that every other Republican candidate has run into problems.

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Richmond, Va.: I was okay with Charlie's performance at the debate except when he asked the Democrats about the surge. He stopped being a questioner and became a prowar advocate. Why is the MSM so prowar? Has there been a time before when the MSM was so prowar?

Howard Kurtz: I don't believe Gibson was being prowar. I believe he was challenging the Democrats to acknowledge that the surge they opposed has shown tangible military results. That doesn't make one in favor of the Iraq war itself. But Charlie did start to argue with them at one point, and he told me on my show yesterday that that may have been a mistake.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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