W. Joseph Campbell

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The murky derivation of ‘All the News That’s Fit to Print’

In 1897, Media myths, New York Times, Year studies on February 11, 2010 at 8:39 am

Prominent and famous though it is, the derivation of “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” the New York Times’ famous motto, is shrouded in a bit of media myth.

The version the Times advanced at its centenary in 1951, in a house newsletter called Times Talk, described the motto as “a hybrid.” Times Talk said Adolph Ochs, who acquired the then-beleaguered Times in 1896, borrowed a key portion of the slogan from the Philadelphia Times.

The Times Talk account was cited by Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones in their prodigious study, The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times.

Supposedly, Ochs borrowed “All the News,” the motto of the Philadelphia Times, appended “That’s Fit to Print,” and thus concocted the most famous seven-word phrase in American journalism.

The account, however, is incorrect.

The Philadelphia Times never used “All the News” as its motto during the summer and fall of 1896, when Ochs acquired control of the Times and began using “All the News That’s Fit to Print” as a marketing and advertising slogan.

A thorough review of issues of the Philadelphia Times published in the summer and fall of 1896 showed that the newspaper carried a number of promotional statements, none of which was particularly pithy, or memorable.

As I wrote in my 2006 book, a year study titled The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the nearest approximation to “All the News” was this rambling assertion, which appeared a few times beneath the front page nameplate of the Philadelphia Times:

“If You Want All the News of Every Description Attractively Presented You Will Read the Times.”

That clunky phrase appeared in the Philadelphia Times on August 4, 11, and 17, 1896. Ochs, according to Tifft and Jones, was installed as the New York Times publisher on August 18, 1896.

“All the News That’s Fit to Print” did not makes its début until early October 1896, spelled out in a row of red lights on an advertising sign above New York’s Madison Square.

Later that month, “All The News That’s Fit to Print” appeared in New York Times advertisements published in the trade journal Fourth Estate. By the end of October 1896, the phrase had taken a place in a corner of the Times’ editorial page.

And 113 years ago yesterday, on February 10, 1897, the Times moved the phrase without notice or fanfare to the upper left corner, the left “ear,” of its front page—a place of prominence that it has occupied ever since.

What prompted the motto’s move to the front page is not entirely clear. But the intent seems undeniable: To offer a rebuke to the bold, self-promoting yellow journalism of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.

But it appears that “All the News That’s Fit to Print” was Ochs’ creation, as Harrison E. Salisbury maintained in Without Fear or Favor: The New York Times and Its Times, an impressive insider’s study of the Times. (Salisbury cited as his source an Ochs manuscript in the Times archives.)

By the way, I quote Salisbury’s Without Fear or Favor in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about media-driven myths.

Without Fear or Favor was a useful source in the chapter in Getting It Wrong that addresses the myth surrounding the Times’ reporting in the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961.



‘Yours neatly, sweetly, completely’: Revisiting the Times’ motto contest

In 1897, New York Times, Year studies, Yellow Journalism on February 10, 2010 at 12:06 am

How about this as the motto for the New York Times? “Clean, crisp, bright, snappy; read it daily and be happy.”

Or this? “Bright as a star and there you are.”

Or? “Pure in Purpose, Diligent in Service.”

Or? “You do not want what the New-York Times does not print.”

They were among thousands of entries submitted in a “motto contest” organized by the Times and its new owner, Adolph Ochs, in autumn 1896.

The contest ostensibly was to encourage readers to propose “a phrase more expressive of the Times’ policy” than “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” which Ochs had begun using as a marketing and advertising slogan in early October 1896. By the end of that month, the phrase had taken a modest place in a corner of the Times’ editorial page.

And on February 10, 1897–113 years ago today–“All the News That’s Fit to Print” appeared in the upper left corner, the “left ear,” of the Times’ front page, a place the motto has occupied ever since.

The 1896 motto contest was in reality a way to call attention to the Times in New York’s crowded newspaper market—one dominated by the yellow journalism of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Ochs had acquired the beleaguered Times in August 1896 and faced such rough going that Pulitzer’s New York World declared several months later:

“The shadow of death is settling slowly but surely down upon” the Times.

The motto contest, cheesy though it may seem today, stirred a fair amount of attention–and reader interaction–in 1896. The Times promised to pay $100 to the person who proposed in ten words or fewer a slogan deemed better than “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” which had first appeared in early October 1896, spelled out in a row of red lights on an advertising sign above New York’s Madison Square.

Among the entries sent to the Times were clunky such suggestions as: “All the News Worth Telling,” “All the News That Decent People Want,” and “The Fit News That’s Clean and True.”

Other were:

“Full of meat, clean and neat.”

“Instructive to all, offensive to none.”

“The people’s voice, good the choice.”

“Aseptic journalism up to date.”

“Yours neatly, sweetly, and completely.”

As I wrote in my 2006 book, a year study titled The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms: “Before the contest ended, the Times altered the stakes by making clear it would not abandon ‘All the News That’s Fit to Print.’

“The Times justified this change of heart by saying no phrase entered in the contest was more apt and expressive than ‘All the News That’s Fit to Print.’ The $100 prize would be awarded, to the person adjudged to have submitted the best entry. But the motto would not be changed.”

Indeed, “All the News That’s Fit to Print” lives on as the most famous slogan in American journalism, the “leitmotif not merely for the Times, but also … for most other general-interest papers in the country,” a columnist for the Wall Street Journal once wrote.

The Times characterized its motto contest not as a grubby publicity stunt but as an opportunity for high-minded rumination about New York City newspapers. The contest, it said, had “set the people of this city to thinking upon the subject of newspaper decency in a more attentive and specific way than has been their custom.”

In any event, a committee of Times staffers winnowed the entries to 150 semi-finalists, which were submitted to Richard Watson Gilder, editor of The Century magazine. Gilder selected four finalists, which were:

  • Always decent; never dull.
  • The news of the day; not the rubbish.
  • A decent newspaper for decent people.
  • All the world’s news, but not a school for scandal.

As I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism, Gilder noted “that terms of the contest had changed from the original intent of selecting a slogan that ‘more aptly express the distinguishing characteristics of the New-York Times’ to the more theoretical task of determining which entry ‘would come nearest to it in aptness.’”

That entry, Gilder determined, was submitted by D.M. Redfield of New Haven, Connecticut. Redfield’s suggestion:

“All the world’s news, but not a school for scandal.”



The seven most famous words in American journalism

In 1897, New York Times on February 9, 2010 at 8:10 am

I’ve written that 1897 was a decisive year in American journalism.

The evocative sneer “yellow journalism” first appeared in print in 1897.

What became the best-known, most-reprinted editorial in American journalism, the New York Sun‘s “Is There A Santa Claus?,” was published in 1897.

William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal developed its bold and interventionist model of “journalism of action” in 1897.

And the seven most famous words in American journalism, “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” took a permanent place on the front page of the New York Times in 1897.

The motto appeared without comment, notice, or fanfare in the upper-left corner, the left “ear,” of the Times front page 113 years ago tomorrow — February 10, 1897.

The smug and tidy slogan has occupied the spot ever since. As  I noted in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the motto represents “an enduring statement of guiding principle of what has long been recognized as the best newspaper in America.”

I also noted that the Times motto has been endlessly parodied and analyzed. Even admirers of the newspaper have acknowledged it’s a bit “overweening” and “elliptical.”

The motto has evoked lofty claims over the years. The Times in 1901, at the fiftieth anniversary of its founding, referred to “All the News That’s Fit to Print” as its “covenant.”

An historian of the Times, Elmer Davis, said the motto had served as “a war cry.”

In 2001, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal described the motto as the “leitmotif not merely for the Times, but also, by a process of osmosis and emulation, for most other general-interest papers in the country, as well as for much of the broadcast media.”

It was also, I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism, “a pithy summation of the Times’ … vision for American journalism,” a model of detachment in newsgathering “that stood in apposition to the extravagance and self-promotion” of Hearst’s “journalism of action.”

Indeed, “All the News That’s Fit to Print” is a timeless rebuke to the practices of Hearst and, to an extent, of Joseph Pulitzer — aggressive and flamboyant techniques that critics scorned as “yellow journalism.”

Interestingly, “All the News That’s Fit to Print” was at first a feature of a marketing campaign by the Times which, in August 1896, had been acquired in bankruptcy court by Adolph S. Ochs, a newspaperman from Tennessee. “All The News That’s Fit to Print” appeared in advertisements in the trade journal Fourth Estate in mid-October 1896. By month’s end, the phrase had taken a modest place in a corner of the Times’ editorial page.

The seven most famous words in American journalism made their debut in early October 1896, in a row of red lights arrayed across a huge advertising sign above Manhattan’s Madison Square. The illuminated sign was on the north wall of the old Cumberland Hotel building at Broadway and 22d Street.

Ochs, who turned 39 in 1897, had a bit of a flair for self-promotion, as the illuminated sign at Madison Square suggested. Securing the space “was nothing less than a coup” for the newcomer to New York journalism, I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism.

“The sign’s bright, multi-colored lights could be seen for many blocks away. Nowhere in the country, or in Europe, the Times immodestly crowed, was there ‘so large and perfect a display.'”

It was illuminated by four rows of lights. White lights of the top and bottom rows spelled, “New-York Times” and “Have You Seen It?” A row of blue, white, and green lights spelled out “Sunday Magazine Supplement.” The red lights, which formed the second row of illumination, announced:

“All the News That’s Fit to Print.”


in mid-October 1896 and by month’s end had taken a place in the upper-left corner of the newspaper’s editorial page.

Catching up: Great movie misquotations

In Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking on February 8, 2010 at 12:16 pm

Heavy snows that have shut down much of metropolitan Washington, D.C., including American University today, have allowed the opportunity to work away at a stack of back issues of newspapers.

So only belatedly have I caught up with the “movie misquotations” item published January 15 in the “On Language” column of the Sunday New York Times magazine.

The column's headline

It’s an entertaining and revealing column that notes that “many of the most frequently cited motion-picture lines turn out to be misquotations.”

One well-known line, usually attributed to the Clint Eastwood character in Dirty Harry, is: “Do you feel lucky, punk?”

What the Eastwood character said was:

“You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”

The column points out that another frequent misquotation is Robert Duvall’s napalm line in Apocalypse Now, which often is cited as:

“I love the smell of napalm in the morning. It smells like victory.”

The Duvall character’s remark was much more detailed and complex:

“I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn’t find one of ’em, not one stinkin’ . . . body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like victory.”

The column’s author, Fred R. Shapiro editor of Yale Book of Quotations, identifies several factors for the emergence of movie misquotations, including:

  • a tendency toward compression, as the Apocalypse Now example suggests.
  • a impulse to improve upon the original passage “by offering a better rhythm or cadence.”
  • an inclination for greater euphony. The famous Mae West line–“Why don’t you come up and see me sometime?”–really was: “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?” In another movie, she said: “Why don’t you come up sometime?”
  • an effort “to keep up with colloquial speech.” The line commonly recalled as “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!,” was uttered in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as: “I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!”

Shapiro’s column is evocative of the phenomenon of “version variability,” which I note in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about media-driven myths.

“Version variability” is the the imprecision that alters or distorts an anecdote in its retelling, leading to differing versions of what was said or done. It can be a marker of media-driven myths.

The so-called “Cronkite Moment” of February 27, 1968, when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite went on air to say the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate,” offers a striking example of “version variability.”

President Lyndon Johnson supposedly was at the White House and watched the Cronkite report that night. Upon hearing the anchorman’s dire assessment, Johnson turned to an aide or aides and said:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Another version quotes Johnson as saying: “I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”

Yet another version has it this way: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the American people.”

And: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the war.”

And: “If we lose Cronkite, we lose America.”

Version variability of  such magnitude is a strong signal of implausibility.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, Johnson wasn’t at the White House when the Cronkite program on Vietnam aired. The president was in Austin, Texas, at a party marking the 51st birthday of his longtime political ally, John Connally.


The hero-journalist myth of Watergate

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 7, 2010 at 10:00 am

What I call “the dominant popular narrative” of the Watergate scandal made an appearance the other day, in a posting at the popular Huffington Post blog.

The occasion was a withering attack on James O’Keefe, the activist-undercover journalist arrested last month posing as a telephone repairman at the New Orleans offices of U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu.

The Huffington Post item unfavorably compared O’Keefe to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who reported most prominently on the Watergate scandal for the Washington Post in the early 1970s. The item declared:

“Woodward and Bernstein brought down a president and they didn’t have to break into anyone’s office.”

Neither did O’Keefe. But it is striking how routinely and off-handedly Woodward and Bernstein are credited with such an accomplishment, especially when the record of Watergate shows that the Post‘s reporting had a marginal effect on forcing Richard Nixon’s resignation from the presidency.

Nixon resigns, 1974

Also striking is how the  Post has acknowledged as much from time to time over the years.

Howard Kurtz, the newspaper’s media reporter, wrote in 2005, for example:

“Despite the mythology, The Post didn’t force Richard Nixon from office—there were also two special prosecutors, a determined judge, bipartisan House and Senate committees, the belated honesty of [former White House lawyer] John Dean and those infamous White House tapes.”

Nixon likely would have completed his term if not for the recordings of his conversations in the Oval Office, conversations that captured his guilty role in authorizing a coverup of the Watergate scandal.

The Senate Select Committee on Watergate–not Woodward and Bernstein–uncovered the existence of the White House tapes. The special federal prosecutors on Watergate (one of whom Nixon ordered fired) pressed for the release of the tapes. And the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ordered Nixon to turn over the  tapes subpoenaed by the special prosecutor.

“The fact is, an incredible array of powerful actors all converged on Nixon at once—the FBI, prosecutors, congressional investigators, the judicial system,” a leading historian of Watergate, Stanley I. Kutler, has written.

Even so, the heroic-journalist myth long ago became the most familiar storyline, the dominant narrative of Watergate.

That’s partly because few Americans are familiar with the intricacies of the epic scandal, one that sent to jail nearly 20 men who were associated with Nixon’s presidency or his 1972 reelection campaign.

The myth of the heroic-journalist, I write in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about media-driven myths, thus serves as ready short-hand “for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.”

I also note in Getting It Wrong:

“How the Post and its reporters uncovered Watergate is deeply ingrained in American journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories.”

But it is a misleading interpretation, one that minimizes the more powerful and decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and ended Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the summer of 1974.


It took Murrow? Not in stopping McCarthy

In Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth on February 4, 2010 at 10:51 pm

Legendary broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow is a touchstone for courage in journalism, a model against which contemporary journalists almost always are found wanting.

Murrow in 1954 (Library of Congress)

Emblematic of Murrow’s courage was his standing up to Joseph R. McCarthy, the Red-baiting Republican senator from Wisconsin, at a time when, supposedly, no one else dared.

The occasion was Murrow’s 30-minute See It Now television program on CBS. The program aired March 9, 1954, and focused on McCarthy’s bullying tactics and taste for half-truth and reckless exaggeration.

That Murrow’s See It Now program brought down McCarthy is a great story. It’s also a delicious and tenacious  media-driven myth, one embraced and advanced by worshipful biographers, journalists, Murrow admirers, and even some media critics.

The myth was reiterated today in a commentary posted at the Cleveland Leader online alternative news outlet.

“It took a major media figure as Edward R. Murrow,” the commentary declared, “to strike the blow to reveal the truth of Sen. McCarthy.”

Well, not exactly.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about media-driven myths, Murrow “was very late in confronting McCarthy” and “did so only after other journalists had challenged the senator and his tactics for months, even years.”

I note that Eric Sevareid, Murrow’s friend and CBS colleague, chafed at the misleading interpretation, noting that Murrow’s program “came very late in the day.”

In an interview published in 1978, Sevareid added:

“The youngsters read back and they think only one person in broadcasting and the press stood up to McCarthy and this has made a lot of people feel very upset, including me, because that program came awfully late.”

Sevareid was correct. Interestingly, even Murrow acknowledged his role in taking down McCarthy was exaggerated. “It’s a sad state of affairs when people think I was courageous,” Murrow told Newsweek shortly after the See It Now show on McCarthy.

Well before that program aired,  a number prominent journalists—the Washington-based syndicated columnist Drew Pearson among them—had become “persistent and searching critics of McCarthy, his record, and his tactics,” I write in Getting It Wrong.

Pearson, I note, “first wrote about McCarthy’s wild allegations [about communists in government] on February 18, 1950, just days after McCarthy had begun raising them. Pearson called McCarthy the ‘harum-scarum’ senator and said that when he ‘finally was pinned down, he could produce … only four names of State Department officials whom he claimed were communists.'”

And none of the charges held water, Pearson wrote.

The legendary status associated with Murrow and his See It Now program has obscured and diminished the contributions of journalists such as Pearson who took on McCarthy long before March 1954, when doing so held no small risk.

It’s one of the hazards of media-driven myths: they can extend credit where credit is not entirely due.


Jessica Lynch and the lingering hero myth

In Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on February 2, 2010 at 8:05 am

It’s amazing how “hero” still attaches to Jessica Lynch, the blonde, waiflike Army private from West Virginia who, through no exceptional effort of her own, became the best-known American military figure of the early days of the Iraq War.

Jessica Lynch, before the war

Lynch was in Florida the other day, promoting  I Am a Soldier, Too, a book about her that was written by Rick Bragg and published in November 2003 to decidedly mixed reviews.

In a report online, a Florida television station gave 267 words to Lynch’s visit; in that report, “hero” was invoked twice.

It’s amazing, too, how the media-driven aspect of her emergence to sudden fame usually is obscured these days. The Florida station made no mention of the Washington Post‘s overheated and erroneous report that gave rise to the hero-warrior myth of Jessica Lynch.

The myth is examined in detail in a chapter in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, which is due out in the summer.

In it, I recount how Lynch was catapaulted to sudden and unsought fame during the first days of the war in Iraq. Lynch then was a 19-year-old supply clerk in the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company.

On March 23, 2003, elements of the 507th were ambushed by Iraqi irregulars in the southern city of Nasiriyah.  Lynch was badly injured in the crash of her Humvee and was taken prisoner.

Nine days later, she was rescued by a U.S. special operations unit from a hospital in Nasiriyah.

Two days after that, on April 3, 2003, the Washington Post published a sensational report on its front page that said Lynch had “fought fiercely” in Nasiriyah and had “shot several enemy soldiers after Iraqi forces ambushed” her unit, “firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition.”

Washington Post's erroneous front-page report

The Post’s report cited “U.S. officials” who otherwise were unidentified as saying that Lynch had “continued firing at the Iraqis — even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her in fighting March 23.”

One official was quoted anonymously as saying:

“‘She was fighting to the death. She did not want to be taken alive.’”

It was a terrific story that was immediately picked up by news outlets across the United States and around the world.

But it wasn’t true.

The battlefield heroics attributed to Lynch were, quite likely, the deeds of another soldier in her unit, a cook from Oregon named Donald Walters. He fought the Iraqis till his ammunition ran out, was captured, and was executed.

Central to the myth enveloping the Lynch case is that the U.S. military encouraged and promoted the phony hero-warrior story, to help boost public support for the war.

But as I describe in Getting It Wrong, one of the reporters on the Post’s erroneous “fighting to the death” report, told an NPR radio program in late 2003 that “the Pentagon … wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch.”

The reporter, Vernon Loeb, also said in that interview: “I just didn’t see the Pentagon trying to create a hero where there was none.”

And the Post‘s erroneous “Fighting to the death” report about Lynch included this passage:

“Pentagon officials said they had heard ‘rumors’ of Lynch’s heroics but had no confirmation.”

The Post’s hero-warrior story about Lynch has had many unintended consequences beyond vaulting Lynch to celebrity status, which, as her appearance in Florida suggests, has never fully receded.

Her celebrity status also helped pave the way for her lucrative book contract with Bragg. And certainly it obscured the actions of Walters, whose conduct Nasiriyah probably saved the lives of some of his fellow soldiers.


More than merely sensational

In 1897, Media myths, Yellow Journalism on February 1, 2010 at 8:36 am

Yellow journalism” lives on in as ready shorthand for sensationalism, for reckless and lurid treatment of the news.

“Yellow journalism” is a delicious and versatile sneer, a term that first appeared in print in late January 1897 and routinely invoked in the decades since to describe egregious journalistic misconduct of almost any kind.

But such casual, shorthand characterizations are not very accurate.

Young W.R. Hearst

They fail to capture or reflect the complexity and vigor of yellow journalism, the leading practitioners of which were the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst and, to a lesser extent, those of Joseph Pulitzer.

Yellow journalism was flamboyant and aggressive, to be sure. Especially so was Hearst’s New York Journal. But to equate “yellow journalism” simply to sensationalism is to misunderstand what a dynamic phenomenon it was.

As I wrote my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, “in its most developed and intense form, yellow journalism was characterized by” these features:

  • the frequent use of multicolumn headlines that sometimes stretched across the front page.
  • a variety of topics reported on the front page, including news of politics, war, international diplomacy, sports, and society.
  • the generous and imaginative use of illustrations, including photographs and other graphic representations such as locator maps.
  • bold and experimental layouts, including those in which one report and illustration would dominate the front page. Such layouts sometimes were enhanced by the use of color.
  • a tendency to rely on anonymous sources, particularly in dispatches of leading reporters.
  • a penchant for self-promotion, to call attention eagerly to the paper’s accomplishments. This tendency was notably evident in crusades against monopolies and municipal corruption.

As defined above and as practiced more than a century ago, yellow journalism, I wrote in the book, “certainly could not be called predictable, boring, or uninspired”—complaints of the sort often raised about contemporary American newspapers.

Moreover, yellow journalism “was a product of a lusty, fiercely competitive, and intolerant time, when newspapers routinely traded brickbats and insults,” I wrote.

“The latter practice was remarkably well-developed at the end of the nineteenth century. The Journal and [Pulitzer’s] World, for example, were ever eager to impugn, denounce, and sneer at each other; so, too, were conservative newspapers.”

More generally, “yellow journalism reflected the brashness and the hurried pace of urban America at the turn of the twentieth century,” I wrote.

“It was a lively, provocative, swaggering style of journalism well suited to an innovative and expansive time—a period when the United States first projected its military power beyond the Western Hemisphere in a sustained manner. The recognition was widespread at the end of the nineteenth century that the country was on the cusp of rapid, perhaps even disruptive transformation.”

Yellow journalism, moreover, “was a genre keen to adapt and eager to experiment.” It took risks; it shook up and even shocked the field.

Were that mainstream news media of the 21st century so inclined.


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