Thursday, October 4, 2018

On The Media Interview With Dean Starkman: The Difference Between "Access Reporting" and "Accountability Reporting" Explains How Very Important Things DON'T Get Reported- Plus Consider The Censorship Crisis

This article, which is about how very important things don’t get reported, will start with one jewel of an issue, the way mainstream media myopically curtails important information because of its reliance on “access journalism.” It will end by opening up another big, partly related, issue important in the overall context of what determines what information won’t flow out to the public: It’s the currently unfolding censorship crisis. . .   That's a crisis which can affect mainstream media, but is especially likely to affect alternative media and other forms of communication.

So to start where we will start. . .

It's a nifty, succinct, little interview . . .

WNYC's weekly On The Media program covered, in an ominously titled show called "Doomed to Repeat," the ten year anniversary of the financial crisis, together with the one year anniversary of Hurricane Maria hitting Puerto Rico. (Of course others, like FAIR's Counterspin were also doing their ten-year anniversary take on the financial crisis- Interesting to listen to both together for comparison.) Included in the On The Media show was  a segment presenting an interview with Dean Starkman: Why the Business Press Didn't Warn Us [i.e., about the financial crisis].

Starkman is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism, and he says that the very nature of business journalism explains a lot about why what is most important in society doesn't get reported. He attributes it to the difference between two kinds of journalism, what he terms “access reporting” and “accountability reporting.” Critically different between the two are the sources of the news and information being provided.

Here is a portion of the interview where Starkman elaborates (emphasis supplied):
DEAN STARKMAN: ... Access reporting is about trying to get access to powerful people to find out what they are thinking and intending, and there's a lot of value to that. Its sources, almost by definition, are elites. All of these qualities conspire to give you a [LAUGHS], a very particular and fairly narrow picture of the subject that you happen to be looking at. Accountability reporting is a different approach. Accountability reporting would have dissident sources, like plaintiffs, lawyers and whistle blowers and community groups and, in the case of financial crisis, attorneys general and state bank regulators and all the people who had their fingers on the problem. As opposed to appealing to investor interest, they would be looking for the public interest. And it's not a question of good guys and bad guys.

Over the course of my career, some of my most fun moments as a business reporter were merger and acquisition scoops. They were the ultimate access story and they're really hard to get and they're super satisfying. The trouble is that all too often the access tendency tends to overwhelm the accountability practice because, you know, let's face it, accountability reporting makes few friends. It's risky, it's stressful, it's expensive and, at the end of the day when the story's published, somebody's in trouble.
Although it undoubtedly overlaps, “access journalism,” is probably not exactly what is sometimes derisively referred to as “press release journalism.”  “Press release journalism” implies that the news reporter on the receiving end is essentially just publishing a press release he or she has received; they are just doing some cut and paste, something less than even just a typist.  On the flip side, “press release journalism” is also sometimes used as a complimentary description of the skills of the person on the other end who is sending out a press release and can write it with sufficient skill so that the press will publish it more or less intact, as an actual news story.  Also, if written cleverly, more people are likely to read it.

Since press releases generally go out with broad availability to a very wide spectrum of recipients, “access journalism” imports something more special, a less passive gathering of news: a journalist who by coddling his news providers with a sufficient degree of flattery, is given information from the important, famous, or powerful.  It’s the solicitation of information from politicians, government officials, business leaders, or celebrities, which those information providers don’t ordinarily chose to furnish as readily to others.  The information is bargained for with the payoff being that the provider of it gets good PR.  Arguably, there are skills involved: Good writing is valuable, and a knowledgeable journalist (knowing, among other things, what topics to bury or be careful about) may go further in this field, but essentially, “access journalism” is another extension of PR.  And, to follow through on Starkman’s dichotomy, it means not holding accountable the subjects of what is being reported.
What do you suppose we are getting more of these days?  Starkman told On The Media:
The rise of PR has been so dramatic and the fall in journalism equally so that it's not a fair fight. If you're looking for where is the actual next crisis, I've seen work that says you should look at the energy sector. I would look at assaults on the Consumer Financial Protection Board.
In his On The Media interview Starkman offers another valuable concept that portends a lot; that there is synergy and a dynamic interrelationship between “accountability journalism” and government officials if those officials stand ready, willing and able to do the job of holding the powerful in check to protect the public:   
     . .  I liken investigative reporting without effective regulation as having all the impact of the sound of one hand clapping. It's not just that journalists use material gathered by regulators but it flows the other way as well where regulators and prosecutors and bank examiners and legislators gather ideas or begin their probes based on newspaper accounts.* Effective journalism and uncompromised regulation go hand in hand and if you lose one then the other is weakened. But that's really just another way of saying that journalism and democracy are really inextricably interrelated. Without a democracy, journalism is going to falter and without journalism so is democracy.
(* For instance, New York State and City tax authorities may now pursue civil penalties for tax evasion based in the New York Times recent investigative mega-story about how Fed Trump transferred his wealth to Donald and his other children.)
Indeed, it surely makes life more interesting when government officials actually do act to protect the public in response to press reports about how the powerful need to be reined in.  Journalism is also better able to command attention from all sides when it is about dynamics that are in play, rather than just reading as sad postmortems about how the public was taken advantage of one more time.

Starkman has been putting forth his ideas about the distinction he makes between “access journalism” and “accountability journalism” going back for a few years now.  One of his consistent observations is that in “business news, access reporting focuses on investor interests; accountability, on the public interest.”  Notwithstanding the likelihood of that divergence, if government officials are ready and responsive to the public interest, it would seem to narrow that gap.

If you are an addict to the 24/7 news cycle there’s a quote from Starkman appearing in Washington Monthly that might give you pause to rethink and wonder whether you should pull back.  Less news could be better quality news given the fact that the 24/7 news outlets have, in turn, their own addiction, a “voracious and unending” appetite for news that is best filled by access journalism:
I argue that within the journalism “field” a primal conflict has been between access and accountability  . . . . But this is hardly a fair fight. Nearly all advantages in journalism rest with access. The stories are generally shorter and quicker to do. Further, the interests of access reporting and its subjects run in harmony. Powerful leaders are, after all, the sources for much of access reporting's product. The harmonious relationship can lead to a synergy between reporter and source. Aided by access reporting, the source provides additional scoops. As one effective story follows another, access reporting is able to serve a news organization's production needs, which tend to be voracious and unending  . . . . Accountability reporting requires time, spaces, expense, risk, and stress. It makes few friends.
That’s a good argument for turning away from 24/7 news outlets as your typical diet. Perhaps it makes sense to turn to longer form reporting (articles and documentaries) and books, looking, in particular, for the classics.  This is not to say that there isn’t, of course, a whole class of books and longer form articles, and documentaries that similarly spew out a faster rate and are simply their own versions of another form of access journalism.  As for the 24/7 cycle, Starkman has dubbed “access reporting” the “CNBC-ization” of business journalism.   In evaluating the “balance” of the copious flow of “access journalism” information in the 24/7 new outlets, it is probably also worth remembering how money also has a superior ability to repackage the same propaganda regurgitated it out of multiple and different well-financed mouths to provide it with a semblance of freshness (as well as the imprimatur of “common wisdom”).
“Access journalism” can, of course, be a legitimate source of valuable information.  That happens when it contains admissions against interest by the powerful providing access.  Sometimes, having their own needs to share information amongst themselves, they think (like Mitt Romney making his 47% campaign remarks) they are speaking to only to those who think the way they do.  That often makes the Wall Street Journal (set up behind a pay wall not everyone can afford to scale) so valuable.  Or one thing I like to watch for when researching is how official stories about things often change over time to keep up as what is thought to be the most currently serviceable narrative.  There seem to be assumptions the public has no memory.
Mr. Schwarzman interviewed on the Charlie Rose Show.
A case in point that provides several examples of such admissions against interests when a powerful man feels too comfortable, is one of Charlie Rose’s typically sycophantic interviews of a powerful man, his interview with billionaire Blackstone Group CEO Stephen A. Schwarzman where Schwarzman, among other things, bemoaned the fact that he can’t profit from more family homes going into mortgage default while describing probably too much about his library plans as well.  See- On Charlie Rose NYPL Trustee Stephen Schwarzman Confirms Suspicions: His $100 Million To The Library Was Linked To NYPL’s Real Estate Plans.  (It’s astounding that a man who thinks the poor need to pay more taxes so that the wealth can pay less is in one of the most powerful people in charge making decisions about New York City’s major libraries.)

In On The Media’s interview with Mr. Starkman, host Bob Garfield described the access journalism and accountability journalism as not only “two competing” journalistic approaches, but as two “sometimes converging journalistic approaches.”   When do they converge?  This was not spelled out.  Would it be when dueling elites at war with each other provide access at the same time?

But let’s ask the question the question again in this context: When the two approaches converge,  which approach is likely to gain the upper hand?  Which will carry the day?
Here is an example of what happened on one occasion when the two approaches “converged.”  The story has to do with my role as a co-founder of Citizens Defending Libraries.  In early 2013 we were working hard to get the word out about the sale and shrinkages of New York City libraries for real estate deals that benefitted developers, but were against the public interest.  My wife, Carolyn, (another of the co-founders of Citizens Defending Libraries) and I happened to be at the threatened Brooklyn Heights Library (then the central destination Business, Career and Education, Federal Depository Library in Downtown Brooklyn) when we encountered a New York Times reporter seeking us out for comment on the proposed sale and shrinkage of the library.  (We had already been written about in the New York Daily News.)

We were in this instance, to use Mr. Starkman’s description, in that category of “dissident sources” (that “accountability journalism” uses) who “had their fingers on the problem,” like the  “plaintiffs, lawyers and whistle blowers and community groups” he mentioned.  In fact, to be more precise, we were a “community group,” we were informed enough about the facts to be trying to `blow the whistle’ about what was going on; we also became the first named of the “plaintiffs” in two of the lawsuits against the Central Library Plan, while endeavoring to bring more lawsuits, and, for good measure, I might say that I am a lawyer.

Therefore, by Starkman’s criteria, Mr. Berger, the Times reporter who sought us out could have been off to the races with a good accountability journalism story.  We sat down with Mr. Berger in a luncheonette and told him some things he was very surprised to hear: The Brooklyn Heights Library was not the only New York City Library being targeted for a real estate sale; that not only were there others, but that it was part of an overall strategy; that the strategy of selling libraries should be viewed as connected to other similarly timed efforts also underway involving the sale of New York City schools (hospitals and post offices were up for sale at that time too).

At first Mr. Berger didn’t believe us, but we not only convinced him, his eyes widening during the discussion, we gave him sources of information for backup and essentially helped him scope out a very different article, a much more sweeping one, than when he initially just wanted to ask us about the proposed sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library and get a few quotes on only that.

My wife eagerly expected to see Berger’s article appear in the paper almost immediately.  I correctly predicted it would take him considerable time to digest what we have given him and that the story would go to a multiple by-line.  A journalist friend of ours whom we dined with that evening cynically predicted with reasonable accuracy what a disaster the story would be when it ultimately ran.

The Times ran the story almost a month later.  It ran as a big story on the front page.  The timing of the story’s publication gave some indication that there had been some coordination of the story's release with the opposing forces working to sell off libraries.  Although we had scoped the article and given Mr. Berger most of his leads that he followed up on in the article, we were not mentioned in the article at all.  Although we had been painstaking in explaining why these sales were not good for the public, how the assets were being plundered and sold for less than their value to the public, this concept was not expressed in the article.  Instead, the article was about why it was good to be selling libraries and schools for these real estate deals.  In other words, the Times reporters had gotten access to those in power selling the libraries and schools and the article was recapitulation of the PR formulated for public consumption.

More details are here: Saving Schools and Libraries by Giving Up the Land They Sit On? - Letter To The New York Times Editor (From Citizens Defending Libraries).

So, in this case, that was the result of one of the `convergence’ of the “two competing” journalistic approaches that Bob Garfield described as sometimes happening: Access journalism quashed accountability journalism.  Running into Mr. Berger later at another of our events opposing library sales, Mr. Berger was apologetic about the fact that his article didn’t mention us.  Even a mention of us that had been critical and disagreeing would have helped our petition and help people find out what Citizens Defending Libraries was working hard to let people know (in other words that familiar “there is no such thing as bad news coverage” concept. . . if they actually cover you).  Further, the Times chose that this very important article would be one of its articles that would not be open for public comment.  And Citizens Defending Libraries was unable to get the Times to publish its letter to the editor (carefully crafted to fall with the 150 Times word limit).

Mr. Berger said that he had included Citizens Defending Libraries in his article, but his editors had removed the references to us.  Mr. Berger was hoping we’d keep supplying him with information— Did we have any bargaining power?

Mr. Starkman’s distinction between access journalism and accountability journalism does not, so far as we have read, extend into another area, the final hurdle, after a story to report information has been written and is ready to be read, there is no assurance that the story will get another kid of access; the kind of access to get that article’s information, thoughts, arguments and point of view published and read by an audience in the public square of ideas.  The question of these additional hurdles slipstreams and goes hand in glove with Starkman’s critique of access journalism.

Noam Chomsky and Edward R. Herman long ago wrote about their postulation and analysis of a number of “filters” that block the flow of information that threatens those in power, including ownership of the media and the need to attract advertising (like the dependence of the Times on real estate industry advertising.)    In fact, Chomsky and Herman also identified long ago, as another of these filters, the media’s need for a symbiotic relationship with its sources of information, often the powerful.

The New York Times is a legacy media outlet, where the establishment of a significant capital infrastructure makes a filter like ownership exceedingly important.  There was once thought, however, that the disruptive influence of the internet would redistribute access to publication and make it more democratic.  Indeed, there have been huge shifts that could lead in exactly this direction: an estimated 70 percent of Americans are now getting their news from just two sources, Facebook and Google, a number that is likely rising.  Further, almost all information Americans are sharing now involves some sort of electronic, digital intermediation.  From Facebook, to Google to email, the internet is the new town square.

But now, when it comes to access to publication, we are confronted with a new crisis of censorship that is impeding access to that virtual town square.  It’s a scandal, but authors now have to be worried whether Facebook and other gatekeepers to the digital, virtual town square will punish them in very significant ways for expressing thoughts that ought to be well within the parameters of protected free speech.

For instance, (and perhaps readers themselves ought think twice before they share this story): Ian Millhiser, the justice editor for ThinkProgress, a not so far left internet outlet, wrote an article observing that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh had said that he would apply the Glucksberg rule in determining whether or not the rights afforded under Roe v. Wade should be upheld, and Millhiser noted that, in 2017, Kavanaugh had previously said that Roe v. Wade was not consistent with the Glucksberg rule.  Consequently, Millhiser rather sensibly, and probably quite accurately concluded that Kavanaugh had therefore essentially said at his hearing that he would overturn Roe v. Wade.  Millhiser’s article conveyed a sense of amazement that this was going unreported.

Millhiser’s article and important analysis was identified as “fake news” by Facebook with the help of a conservative and not impartial rival publication (The Weekly Standard) and Facebook thereupon punished ThinkProgress by throttling by 80% the sharing of all their content.  But Facebook’s unfair censorship leveled other draconian media punishment:                               
The second thing is that a push notification is sent to everyone who shared it, informing them that it is, quote, “false news.”

And then the third thing that happens is everyone who shared it, even the people who shared it before The Weekly Standard weighs in, gets punished. All of their content gets downgraded and is less likely to show up in people’s newsfeeds from that point forward.
Jimmy Dore observed the irony of the fact that immediately before this censorship and punishment by Facebook, ThinkProgress was “cheerleading” much of the censorship that Facebook was doing.  Meanwhile, (also available in Dore’s commentary) ThinkProgress has since pointed out that some of this Facebook censorship involves Facebook hiring the very conservative Senator John Kyl of Arizona “to lead `an audit’ of alleged `liberal bias at the expense of conservative voices’” and that among Kyl’s other duties was that the Trump White House tapped Kyle to act as Kavanaugh’s “Sherpa” to get Kavanaugh successfully through the confirmation process.

Jimmy Dore coverage of the irony of ThinkProgress's censorship and Senator John (Kavanaugh Sherpa) Kyl's involvement in Facebook's censorship
Facebook is also working with the militaristic and corporatist Atlantic Council (it includes members such as Henry Kissinger, former CIA chief Michael Hayden, etc. ) on what content to squelch.

The power of such censorship by private companies on the internet can be seen from the organized, coordinated and sudden crackdown and “deplatforming” of Alex Jones.  Not only did Facebook, Apple, YouTube, Spotify, Pinterest, Stitcher Radio, Periscope, and LinkedIn act either in unison or more or less coordinated fashion to shut down Jones’ outlets and access to his followers, MailChimp took away his mailing list and PayPal shut down the transmission of funds to him.

There is fairly widespread and almost automatic feeling that much of Alex Jones content is objectionable. . .   so much so, that a more nuanced discussion about some of Jones content is not going to happen.  It is also quite possible that Alex Jones, who has been characterized as something of a performance artist in purveying his content, is not 100% on the level.  Arguably, even if he didn’t intend to make himself a target for censorship, his bent in serving up such an intriguingly peculiar stew of content could have been exactly as it turned out, to help make alternatives to mainstream media ridiculous and more likely to be generally dismissed out of hand.

It is nevertheless a problem that Jones is being censored in this way, and while Alex Jones may be the focal point that provides most of mainstream’s optics for this censorship launch (pleasing to many), it’s not just Alex Jones that’s being censored.  It is also ThinkProgress.  And it is others.  There is too much talk in powerful circles about mobilizing the United States to invade Venezuela. . . Simultaneously, web outlets that provide the other side of the story are being censored: Sites that say why we should not invade Venezuela, that describe the United States as acting like an empire and that say why United States treatment of Venezuela ought to be subject to some scathing criticism.

When I say the things I am saying here I have to think twice, because I have to wonder whether when I write certain things whether it will cause this National Notice site to slide down in its Google ranking if Google spikes the site with its algorithms.  Are the National Notice and Citizens Defending Libraries sites Googling lower already because of the ideas that have been expressed there?  I don’t know.  From my observations, quite possibly.

As Matt Taibbi, Abby Martin, and others are pointing out, based on the practice of what is already being shut down and the language offered with respect to the criteria being used, it is enough to be deemed that a site is “sowing division” for it to be censored.  Or sites may be censored for “glorifying violence,” (really, in this culture?  Where we are "guided by the beauty of our weapons"?) “sowing division,” “hateful conduct,” or “fomenting radical discontent” (the last of which may even mean encouraging third party candidates).  Clearly, the message is that people are supposed to travel a safe, middle, somehow consensus-defined road with respect to the views and information they communicate.  What is not clear is how narrow that road is now expected to be, may become in the future, or the arbitrariness with which its edges get defined. . .

. . .  Matt Taibbi points out how self-censoring journalists are likely to become as they fear punishment for transgressing unknown lines as application of the guidance of the previously clear legal lines (and remedies) of Times v Sullivan are superseded by something vaguer and stricter.

It may be that “Dark Money” can blanket the broadcast airwaves with commercials intended to influence political campaigns that emanate from anonymously funded fake public interest groups, but if Facebook deems pages organizing attendance at demonstrations to oppose Neo-Nazi groups to be “inauthentic” they will shut them down.  And to thoroughly confuse and muddy the debate, in rather suspicious ways, it seems that Facebook is at the same time discriminatorily shutting down black activist sites and communication while it remains inert as streams of false information postings contribute majorly to political turmoil and upheaval in certain countries overseas, including the inflammation of ethnic cleansing and genocide in Myanmar (Burma).

Here in the United States, you can even now be censored for not regulating your tone.  Journalist Glen Greenwald who has been alert to the unfolding censorship crisis pointed out that Georgetown Professor C. Christine Fair was just censored by Twitter for adopting a “kill all the lawyers” tone (to use Shakespeare’s terminology) when, in connection with Lindsey Graham’s tirade at the Kavanaugh hearing (itself an ostentatious example of questionable tone control), she railed against the “chorus of entitled white men justifying a serial rapist’s arrogated entitlement” suggesting what metaphorically ought to be those men’s just deserts.

When it comes to Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, we are dealing with huge monopolies that, dominate the market, and, as noted, have also essentially become, in so many, many respects our town square, digitally supplanting much of what existed and was relied on before.  It truly seems that these changes require that these companies be considered common carriers (like trains, buses or the phone company)*, and they should not be allowed to discriminate, as they do now, by corporate caprice with no regulation or due process protection.  They are, after all, the modern day version of the phone company. . . (when, in fact, is the last time you didn’t first go to Facebook before trying the “phone book” when you wanted to track down somebody you needed to contact?).
(* It should be noted that the Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996, has already provided that these companies are not responsible from a liability standpoint for content posted by those using their services, so these companies cannot claim that the content published either is somehow their own or subjects them to liability.)
Right now, we have the worst of all worlds.  If the internet, which was begun and developed by the federal government, were still in government hands, then the free speech protections of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights would protect against discrimination and the shutting down of free speech.  But the internet was quietly privatized with no fanfare or discussion of the implications at the time and these are private companies.  They are private companies irrespective of contexts in which their power probably exceeds that of the government.

Because these companies might be regulated, but would prefer not to be, and because they have all sorts of interactions with the government, including huge contracts, they want to please the government, it being important for them to please the most powerful most.  Thus, their actions become extensions of the wishes of those most powerful in government.  At the same time, the free speech protections of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights don’t get applied.  Further, these companies become such extensions of the powerful in government without the government ever having to take any formal action or observe any sort of due procedure to adopt a law or openly reflect the reaching a public consensus about what they are doing.

The powerful in government looking to shape Google's and Twitter's bias: Recent articles in the New York Times about Republicans pressuring Google to be more on their side. (1,2,3,4)
But, if there were regulations, the regulations we don’t have, those regulations would have to require the application of neutral standards . . . or they would violate the free speech protections required by the Constitution.

Right now, as I said above, we have the worst of all worlds. . . but that might be the way certain people would like it.

The subject of internet censorship crisis that is unfolding right now is too immense to fully consider before we wrap up this piece which began with the more simple discussion of “access journalism,” but here are links for some additional worthwhile discussion, review and consideration of the issue:
    •     Rolling Stone: Beware the Slippery Slope of Facebook Censorship- The social network is too big and broken to properly function, and these “fixes” will only create more problems, by By Matt Taibbi, August 2, 2018
    •    Rolling Stone:  Censorship Does Not End Well- How America learned to stop worrying and put Mark Zuckerberg in charge of everything, by By Matt Taibbi, August 13, 2018

    •    Project Censored: Abby Martin, Mike Prysner, and Kevin Gosztola, September 4, 2018
(Includes: “discussion regarding efforts to censor voices critical of the US empire from journalists to veterans and whistleblowers. They’re rejoined by Abby Martin of The Empire Files about online censorship and recent attacks of her work on TeleSUR”)   
    •    Project Censored: The Censorship of Youtube and Facebook with David Pakman and Andrew Austin, August 22, 2018

    •    Jimmy Dore Radio Shows: August 16, 2018 (at 32 minutes in) and September 13, 2018 (at 36:50 in)
Censorship and the suppression of free speech is something that, as a matter of principle, should worry us all, but, as a practical matter, the question of censorship is likely to seem less threatening to the mainstream media outlets that mainly make “access journalism” their daily bread and butter.  That’s because those outlets have that symbiotic relationship that aligns their interests with those in power.  That's something those outlets may well suppose will protect them and allow them to continue on their present course.  Moreover, mainstream media, including all those outlets responsible for the 24/7 news cycle, is almost entirely owned by six conglomerate companies.  Thus, as gargantuas in their own right, they have they own heft to help them stand up to the huge companies that are now the communication pipes of the internet.

Nor can we finish without recognizing how the interests of mainstream media can be antagonistic to those most likely to be subjected to censorship.  Because the internet presents the potential for disrupting mainstream media’s monopolistic business model, censorship of alternative media and the attractions of its alternative narratives works to buttress the sovereign status of mainstream media.  This push back against the Internet's potential for disruption (and democratization of information flow) is quite similar to why the media outlets of the six conglomerates, sometimes with interlaced ownerships, are more prone to favor (or just not report about the significance of) the abolition of net neutrality, the rule that, if in place and enforced, ensures free and open access to all publishers on the internet.

A last reminder, before leaving off: We have written here about how the mainstream media can be far from reliable and how and why, specifically, the public may be denied important information concerning what it ought to know about, like, for instance, as noted at the beginning of this piece, the likelihood that a major financial crisis was looming before 2008.  Perhaps then the biggest irony is that one of the most frequently advanced memes offered as justification for the newly unfolding wave of censorship, often by the mainstream media, is that it is the alternative media that is unreliable.

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