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The News About the News

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American Journalism in Peril

Written by Leonard Downie, Jr.Author Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Leonard Downie, Jr. and Robert G. KaiserAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Robert G. Kaiser


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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 320 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42906-3
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Freedom of the press is a primary American value. Good journalism builds communities, arms citizens with important information, and serves as a public watchdog for civic, national, and global issues. But what happens when the news turns its back on its public role?

Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of The Washington Post, and Robert G. Kaiser, associate editor and senior correspondent, report on a growing crisis in American journalism. From the corporatization that leads media moguls to slash content for profit, to newsrooms that ignore global crises to report on personal entertainment, these veteran journalists chronicle an erosion of independent, relevant journalism. In the process, they make clear why incorruptible reporting is crucial to American society. Rooted in interviews and first-hand accounts, the authors take us inside the politically charged world of one of America’s powerful institutions, the media.


Chapter One
News Matters

The story is a legend now, but it really did happen. Early in the morning of June 17, 1972, inside the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington's Watergate office building, police arrested five men wearing business suits and rubber surgical gloves and carrying cameras and sophisticated bugging devices. The Washington Post assigned a longhaired newsroom roustabout named Carl Bernstein and one of the paper's newest reporters, Bob Woodward, to report the story. Over the next two years they unraveled a tangled conspiracy of political spying and dirty tricks, wiretaps, break-ins, secret funds and a criminal cover-up–all orchestrated by President Richard Nixon's White House.

For a long time the Post was the only news organization to take Watergate seriously. The Washington establishment brushed the story off, and Nixon's allies put pressure on the Post to drop it. But after months of Woodward and Bernstein's revelatory stories, government investigators and then the Congress joined the pursuit. Impeachment proceedings began, and on August 9, 1974, Nixon became the first president of the United States ever to resign his office. Watergate became an example for the ages, a classic case when journalism made a difference.

Good journalism does not often topple a president, but it frequently changes the lives of citizens, both grand and ordinary.

When Robert Hopkins telephoned Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy, he was sixty-five years old, a diabetic on kidney dialysis three times a week and the desperate father of three young children, ages four, five and six. Their mother had abandoned the family soon after the birth of the youngest child and shortly before Hopkins's illnesses had been discovered. When Milloy met the Hopkins family, they were squatters in an abandoned apartment complex in a run-down Washington neighborhood. The children charmed Milloy, as did Hopkins's determination to hold his family together, get his kids off to school and find them something to eat. They were surviving on $566 a month in social security benefits.

"Robert Hopkins says he hopes I can help," Milloy wrote in the Post. "With his health deteriorating and his children's needs skyrocketing, he reluctantly places his case before the court of last resort."

After Milloy's column appeared, Hopkins received $10,000 in donations from readers. A widow with a comfortable house invited Hopkins and his children to move in with her. Other readers offered to take the Hopkins children to restaurants and amusement parks, to mentor and tutor them, to buy them clothes. In a second column, Milloy described Hopkins opening letters containing checks and offers of help: "'Who are these people?" [Hopkins] asked, tears of amazement in his eyes. 'Are they real?'"

Good journalism holds communities together in times of crisis, providing the information and the images that constitute shared experience. When disaster strikes, the news media give readers and viewers something to hold onto–facts, but also explanation and discussion that can help people deal with the unexpected. So on September 11, 2001, and for some time after, Americans remained glued to their televisions, turned in record numbers to online news sites and bought millions of extra copies of their newspapers to help absorb and cope with the horrors of a shocking terrorist attack on the United States. In the weeks that followed, good reporting allowed Americans to participate vicariously in the investigations of the terrorists and the government's planning for retaliation. Journalists could educate Americans about Islamic extremists, the history of Afghanistan, the difficulty of defending the United States against resourceful and suicidal terrorists and much more. Journalism defined the events of September 11 and their aftermath. In those circumstances the importance of journalism was obvious, and much discussed. Whether widely noticed or not, good journalism makes a difference somewhere every day.

Communities are improved by aggressive, thorough coverage of important, if everyday, subjects like education, transportation, housing, work and recreation, government services and public safety. Exposure of incompetence and corruption in government can change misbegotten policies, save taxpayers money and end the careers of misbehaving public officials. Revelations of unethical business practices can save consumers money or their health. Exploration of the growing reach of computer databases can protect privacy. Disclosure of environmental, health, food and product dangers can save lives. Examination of the ways society cares for the poor, homeless, imprisoned, abused, mentally ill and retarded can give voice to the voiceless. News matters.

In 1999 the Chicago Tribune documented the experiences of scores of men sentenced to death in Illinois who had been beaten by police into confessing crimes, had been represented at trial by incompetent attorneys or had been convicted on questionable evidence. Soon after the newspaper published its findings, the governor of Illinois suspended all executions.

Houston television station KHOU began reporting in February 2000 that Ford Explorers equipped with certain kinds of Firestone tires had been involved in dozens of fatal highway accidents. Its reports led to nationwide news coverage, federal investigations and the recall of millions of tires, undoubtedly saving many lives.

The Star-Ledger in Newark, investigating the 1998 shooting of four men by New Jersey state police, used the newspaper's lawyers to force the state to disclose records that showed state police had targeted black motorists by using racial profiling. The paper's stories drew national attention to the police practice of drawing up the profiles of "typical" criminals based on race and stopping random suspects based on such profiles. This reporting helped create a national political issue and led to action by both the state and federal governments to reduce the use of profiling.

Salt Lake City television station KIVX and the city's two daily newspapers, the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News, uncovered corruption in the bidding process that had won the 2002 winter Olympic games for Salt Lake City. The city's Olympics promoters had showered gifts and financial favors on members of the International Olympic Committee and their relatives. This news mushroomed into the biggest scandal in the history of the Olympics and led to changes in bidding for future games. It also shook the pillars of the Salt Lake City community.

The Oregonian newspaper in Portland found that many of the 140,954 holders of disabled parking permits in Oregon were not disabled at all but had obtained their permits fraudulently. By using a computer to compare the state's permit records with Social Security Administration data, the newspaper discovered that holders of 13,412 disabled parking permits were dead; able-bodied relatives were renewing and using the dead people's permits to park free at meters. State officials promised a crackdown on abusers and changes in procedures for issuing and renewing permits.

The Miami Herald exposed pervasive voter fraud in the 1997 Miami mayoral election. Campaign workers for the mayor and other candidates registered nonresidents at phony addresses in the city, validated absentee ballots for people living outside Miami, punched other voters' absentee ballots without their permission and paid $10 each to poor and homeless people to persuade them to vote. The election result was subsequently overturned in court.

The Philadelphia Inquirer revealed in 1998 that police had manipulated their crime records to make the city appear safer than it was in widely publicized FBI statistics. The police erased some crimes from their records entirely, and downgraded robberies, burglaries, car break-ins, stabbings and assaults to minor offenses like "threats," "lost property," "vandalism," "hospital cases" and "disturbances," which are not included in the FBI's accounting of serious crimes. The Inquirer reported later that Philadelphia police had also failed to investigate thousands of sexual-assault complaints, rejecting many of them as "unfounded" and hiding others in file drawers. Official investigations and reforms of police procedures followed.

Little Rock's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette brought to light beatings, sexual assaults and other mistreatment of delinquent children in a state detention center and wilderness camps in 1998. A year later, the Baltimore Sun reported that guards were brutally beating teenagers in Maryland's state boot camps for delinquents. Investigations, resignations and camp closings followed in both states.

Good journalism–in a newspaper or magazine, on television, radio or the Internet–enriches Americans by giving them both useful information for their daily lives and a sense of participation in the wider world. Good journalism makes possible the cooperation among citizens that is critical to a civilized society. Citizens cannot function together as a community unless they share a common body of information about their surroundings, their neighbors, their governing bodies, their sports teams, even their weather. Those are all the stuff of the news. The best journalism digs into it, makes sense of it and makes it accessible to everyone.

Bad journalism–failing to report important news, or reporting news shallowly, inaccurately or unfairly–can leave people dangerously uninformed. The news media failed to report adequately on the overextended and corrupt savings and loan industry before it collapsed and cost depositors and taxpayers billions of dollars during the 1980s. The press failed to discover and expose the tobacco industry's cover-up of evidence of the addictive and cancer-causing effects of smoking and its clandestine marketing of cigarettes to young people until plaintiffs' lawyers discovered both in the course of liability lawsuits during the 1990s. At a time when nearly half of eligible Americans don't vote, the news media have steadily reduced their coverage of government and elections, leaving citizens vulnerable to negative and misleading political advertising that fills the airwaves instead, enriching television and radio stations during election campaigns. Although Americans are more globally connected than ever, most news media steadily and substantially reduced their coverage of foreign news during the last years of the twentieth century, depriving Americans of the opportunity to follow the world around them. This fact was widely discussed after the terrorist attack of September 2001, when foreign stories suddenly became fashionable again.

Bad journalism can misinform. Television newscasts and many newspapers routinely overemphasize crime news, so Americans continue to fear that crime is getting worse when it has actually been decreasing steadily for years. Journalists eager to attribute the deadly bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 or the catastrophic explosion of TWA Flight 800 over Long Island to Islamic terrorists misled Americans before they knew that the real culprits were Timothy McVeigh and an exploding fuel tank on the Boeing 747. Glowing, uncritical coverage of new technology companies in the late 1990s encouraged many Americans to sink their savings into speculative stocks and mutual funds that soon crashed, collectively costing them billions of dollars.

Much bad journalism is just lazy and superficial. Local television stations lard their newscasts with dramatic video fragments of relatively inconsequential but sensational fires and auto accidents. Broadcast and cable networks devote news time to mindless chat and debate. Newspapers fill columns with fluffy trivia and rewrites of press releases and the police blotter.

Bad news judgment is commonplace. "If it bleeds, it leads" is a self-mocking slogan among local television journalists, but also an accurate description of the reflex of television news directors to make gory crime stories the first news items on the 11 o'clock news. The celebrity divorce, the police raid on a massage parlor, the opening of a county fair–all too often, it doesn't have to be new, or factual, or interesting, or important to be labeled "news."

Journalists have a special role in preserving one of America's greatest assets, our culture of accountability. Americans expect their leaders to behave responsibly, and usually take remedial action when they don't. This is an important reason why American society works better than many others. Accountability is a crucial aspect of our national ideology, which was based on the rejection of tyranny, defined by the founders as the unjust use of power. Americans in positions of power generally assume that someday they may have to account for how they have used their power. This is especially true for those who hold power in our government "of the people, by the people, for the people," but for others as well. Corporate officers hold power over companies and their customers. Foundation officers hold power over the distribution of vast sums of money. Those with power in film studios, television networks, book publishers and recording companies shape our popular culture. American society is diverse and decentralized; countless citizens exercise some power over the lives of other citizens.

Accountability is an important check on that power. Our politicians know that informed voters can throw them out of office; corporate CEOs recognize the authority of their boards of directors and the influence of their stockholders; a cop taking bribes knows he doesn't want to get caught. Good journalism is a principal source of the information necessary to make such accountability meaningful. Anyone tempted to abuse power looks over his or her shoulder to see if someone else is watching. Ideally, there should be a reporter in the rearview mirror.

Solemn obligations are far from the only justification for good journalism. The journalist's ability to connect readers or viewers to the comedy and tragedy that surrounds us all makes life richer and more rewarding. One of the rewards of being alive is watching the world change. During our nearly four decades in journalism we've seen amazing changes that have redefined the American experience: the creation of a middle-class majority in the United States; economic and cultural globalization; the celebrification of just about everything; the power of America's youth culture to infect the country and the world; the emergence of women, African Americans and gay people; and great migrations from Latin America and Asia; the long and frustrating struggle with terrorism. Journalism described all of this, though not always as quickly or thoroughly as it could have. Any attentive American could keep up with this changing world by following the news. Good journalism gives every one of us the opportunity to be real citizens of our own time.

Human beings are instinctively curious, and journalism relieves curiosity. The real workings of big-time sports, the backstage gossip from the worlds of movies and television, the personalities and company histories behind the names listed on the New York Stock Exchange, new cures and old remedies for every kind of ailment, the condition of our environment, details of community and neighborhood life–virtually the entire range of human curiosities is covered by good journalism. So it should matter to Americans that the news is at risk today. In an information age, when good journalism should be flourishing everywhere, it isn't.

From the Hardcover edition.
Leonard Downie, Jr.|Robert G. Kaiser|Author Q&A|Author Desktop

About Leonard Downie, Jr.

Leonard Downie, Jr. - The News About the News
Leonard Downie Jr. was executive editor of The Washington Post for seventeen years, during which time its news staff won twenty-five Pulitzer Prizes, including three Pulitzer gold medals for public service. His books include The New Muckrakers and The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril (with Robert G. Kaiser), which won the Goldsmith Award from the Joan Shorenstein Center at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is now a vice president of The Washington Post Company and lives with his wife, Janice, in Washington, D.C.

About Robert G. Kaiser

Robert G. Kaiser - The News About the News

Photo © Lucian Perkins

Robert G. Kaiser has been on the staff of The Washington Post since 1963. He has reported on the House and Senate; was a correspondent in Saigon and Moscow; served as national editor and managing editor; and is currently associate editor and senior correspondent. He has also written for Esquire, Foreign Affairs, and The New York Review of Books. His books include Russia: The People and the Power; So Damn Much Money; and, with Leonard Downie Jr., The News About the News. He has received an Overseas Press Club award, a National Press Club award, and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. He has also been a commentator on NPR's All Things Considered. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Robert Kaiser is represented by Random House Speakers Bureau (www.rhspeakers.com).

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Leonard Downie, Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser, authors of The News About the News

Q: What are the components of good journalism? What makes you both such experts at understanding and identifying that good journalism?

A: Good journalism comes in many forms, but all of it connects people to the world in a compelling way. A great story about a football game can qualify as good journalism as surely as an expose of bribe-taking by the mayor. One common ingredient in revelation: good journalism tells its readers or viewers something they didn't know before. In our opinion, good journalism shows respect for the intelligence of readers and viewers, and doesn't treat them like know-nothings. As for the two of us, you could probably call us self-appointed experts. We've worked together at a great newspaper for nearly 38 years; journalism has been our life. Perhaps it sounds pompous, but we really do care about the fate of good journalism. We wrote this book to help the consumers of news understand how important journalism is, and to encourage them to demand the best.

Q: In your book you lay out the history of newspapers and journalism over the last two centuries. At what point did we enter the "modern age" of journalism as we know it?

Yesterday, perhaps? Journalism is changing very quickly, partly because of technology, but also because of economic pressures on news organizations, which are re-shaping many of them right now. In our book we have tried to describe a "modern" journalism that took shape, probably, in the '90s, but as we wrote we were constantly reminded of how quickly the business is changing. The last big change we were able to write about was September 11, a story of enormous importance that transformed the news business, at least temporarily.

Q: Please talk about the difference between chain-owned newspapers and privately-held newspapers like The Washington Post. Isn't your support of private companies a bit elitist?

Not sure elitist is the right word, but it does seem to us to be true that family-owned or family-dominated companies put out the best newspapers in America. We argue in the book that this is because a family-controlled company can resist pressures from Wall Street and elsewhere that publicly-held companies seem unable to resist. But it's also related to a sense of responsibility on the part of the owners. The Sulzbergers, who control The New York Times, and the Grahams who control The Washington Post, do seem to have a stronger commitment to public service than do the managers of the biggest newspaper chains.

Q: Will the bottom line-oriented chain papers that eschew values for profit eventually shoot themselves in the foot and lose those beloved profits?

A: We certainly think that's a possibility. Papers whose owners keep shrinking their news staffs and the space devoted to news make those papers continually less important to their readers, advertisers and communities. Eventually, all three could rebel most easily by ceasing to take the paper seriously. We expect to see a lot of papers lose a lot of circulation in the next decade, unless their owners wake up and start to improve them instead of making them steadily weaker.

Q: Most people agree that the news media covered the events of September 11 in an admirable way. With all of its built in limitations how did it manage to do this?

A: Coverage of Sept. 11 was very heartening. It showed that in newsrooms all over America, professional journalists could rise to the occasion the biggest news story of our times. We think this is proof that there are still lots of high-quality journalists in America, and that many editors, producers and reporters still know what good journalism is. After this national tragedy, owners and managers gave their journalists great freedom to do their best work. Many knew how to take advantage of that opportunity.

Q: Did the profound effect of the terrorist attacks bring permanent change in how seriously the media takes itself in covering the news?

A: Good question. We're hopeful, but not yet optimistic. It's just too soon to say.

Q: Could the news media have done a better job in covering September 11? What could it have done better?

A: The media can ALWAYS do a better job than they do, even the very best news organizations. This is one of the things that makes ours such a challenging profession. There's an old slogan that sums up the opportunity: "Our best today, better tomorrow." As for September 11, many newspapers, and the major networks, could have done a better job putting the terrorists in the context of the societies from which they come. A lot of news organizations are now really uncomfortable dealing with foreign news, but this was in large measure a foreign news story. We all could have done better piercing the veil of secrecy the government threw up around the investigation at home and the war in Afghanistan.

Q: It is a commonly held view that the media has a liberal bias. Is that perception or reality?

What exactly is a liberal bias? The idea that America's journalists are a pack of rabid left-wingers eager to promote big government and undermine traditional family values is just silly; there's no evidence of such group-think. Good journalists look for the weak spots in subjects they cover: presidential administrations, corporations, school boards, the local basketball team. They're skeptical, and they challenge conventional wisdom, and authority too. Is that "liberal?” Some people think it is. We don't. Good journalists like to puncture
pretense, expose phoniness, and expose malfeasance. That's our ideology. At the same time, we are concerned that too much opinion is seeping into what is presented as news these days, especially on television, although that opinion is usually divided between liberal and conservative views.

Q: The media is often called the 4th estate, meaning that it is as powerful a force as the three branches of the federal government. Is this true? Or can it be true since even the best journalists will inevitably miss many stories?

In our book we argue that it's easy to overstate the power of the news media. Journalists don't make policy; they don't have the power to subpoena witnesses or evidence; they don't have much success telling people how to vote. The media are enormously important. They create the shared experience that constitutes the American culture. But they do this almost unconsciously, certainly not in pursuit of some master plan. The real power of the media lies in its ability to provide Americans with the information they need to lead their lives and govern themselves effectively.

Q: You believe that journalism has a "mission of public service " (p62) which includes exposing corruption, holding politicians accountable for their behavior and more. How far does one go in terms of reporting on say the sex lives of politicians? How does one both protect the privacy of individuals and honor the public trust?

Our book contains a detailed account of a big debate inside The Washington Post in 1996 over whether to expose a long-ago love affair of Sen. Bob Dole, the Republican candidate for president that year. Len Downie decided we wouldn't do it, after a heated argument within the staff. Most of Len's colleagues, including Bob Kaiser, disagreed with him, for reasons you'll have to read the book to find out. In that episode we all had to wrestle with your question when is a sex story relevant to a politician's career? Bill Clinton and Monica
Lewinsky made it easy, for instance. A president having sex with an intern inside the White House is clearly a news story. But most cases are much more subtle. Our general rule of thumb is, a politician's private life must have some connection to the performance of his public duties before we're ready to write about it.

Q: How can media companies maintain high standards of newsgathering and at the same time make profits for their owners/stockholders?

A: Here's an interesting fact: the best news products are generally very profitable. The New York Times usually makes a lot of money; so does The Wall Street Journal. It's our belief that readers actually respond to quality, and help make it pay. It seems insulting and wrong-headed to us to argue that news has to be sleazy or dumb to appeal to a broad audience.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book? And why now?

A: The News About the News grew out of many years of collaboration between the two of us. In 1998, when Kaiser was preparing to escape from the responsibilities of the managing editorship, he told Downie he wanted to close out his years as an editor by writing a book about what had happened to the news business. Kaiser thought his experiences at the Post, plus his exposure to other news organizations, could be used in a cautionary book that would warn Americans that good journalism was at risk. Downie asked if he could be a co-author. We quickly agreed on a plan. There's no good answer to why now. Indeed, the fact that this book is coming out so soon after the tragedies of September 11, the biggest news story of modern times, is entirely a coincidence, though we have tried to exploit that coincidence in the final version of our book.

Q: What was it like writing the book together?

A: Because Downie remains the editor of the Post, it wasn't easy to make the time needed to produce a book, and it did take us more than two years, but we did it. We are very close friends and colleagues, and can often complete one another's sentences. We grew up together under the great Ben Bradlee, whose values and interests became our own over the quarter-century we worked for him. When it came to writing this book, we did much of the reporting together, but also took trips and interviewed people independently. We did a great deal of reporting for the book, and discovered that we hadn't been as knowledgeable about our business as we had assumed. We divided up the job of drafting the various chapters, then edited and rewrote each other's drafts quite ruthlessly. We had a great time and we're still friends!

Q: You both are at the top of your field. Looking back on what you wanted out of a career in journalism, have you achieved what you sought?

A: And then some. In the summer of 1964, when we first met as freshly-scrubbed summer interns in the old Washington Post newsroom, neither of us would have dared dream of the good fortune we have both enjoyed. The greatest joy of the news business is that they pay you to learn. We have learned more, about more subjects, that we could have thought possible in 1964. The fact that Ben and Katharine and Don Graham would ultimately show so much confidence in us was similarly something we could never have predicted. So it is safe to say that our careers have been much more successful than even our considerable youthful ambitions would have permitted us to foresee.

On the other hand, we can also say that we haven't achieved all we eventually came to dream of and hope for as we found ourselves in positions of responsibility at The Washington Post. Our work, and our newspaper are not as good as they could be, or as we hope they will be next month and next year. This is another joy of the news business--there is always a big gap between the ideal, and the actual. We've watched journalism, and our paper improve dramatically over the last four decades, but there's lots of room for further improvement in the future. One reason we wrote this book was to encourage those improvements.

From the Hardcover edition.

Author Q&A

Authors Bob Kaiser and Leonard Downie discuss two important times when newspaper journalism made a specific impact on society in recent years. On their authors' desktop you can read about specific newspaper articles and link to the newspaper's sites to read the actual article as it appeared in the newspaper on the day it was just off the press.

On the excerpt portion of their author pages, you can read what they have to say about the internet's impact on journalism -- with links to take you directly to the sites they discuss.

Praise | Awards


“Unsettling . . . a valuable and alarming book.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Important. . . . Downie and Kaiser offer valuable firsthand insights.” –The New York Times Book Review

“A strong contribution. . . . Downie and Kaiser write from inside the tent, and they write from experience. Their views are worth our attention.” –The Miami Herald

“Unsettling. . . . The News About the News has a message worth reading.” –St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“We needed something persuasively powerful. Here it is. . . . [This book] makes the case that news is essential, that the quality of news has been in decline and that letting it go on declining is not just bad journalism but bad business. I wish I'd written it.” –James M. Naughton, American Journalism Review

“Downie and Kaiser are not campus alarmists, but serious men who do not kid around. . . . A thorough piece of reporting in the upright plain-but-honest tradition.” –Russell Baker, The New York Review of Books

“A vividly written account of what is indeed American journalism in peril. It will grip anyone who reads a paper regularly and watches television.” –The Times Literary Supplement

“Influential. . . . A fascinating inside look.”–The Boston Phoenix

“An insightful and penetrating look at how journalism has changed for the better and worse.” –Booklist

“Refreshing and educational. . . . Any reader who cares about the quality of information available to the American citizenry is bound to learn something new, and probably unforgettable, from this insiders’ account.” –BookPage

“An insightful and authoritative look at how corporate financial demands have consistently eroded newsroom budgets with a corresponding cutback in the coverage of the news.” –The Sacramento Bee

“Brief yet meaningful. . . . An important, up-to-date study that should be required reading for . . . serious consumers of the news.” –Publishers Weekly


SUBMITTED 2003 Goldsmith Book Prize

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