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Media bias isn't real, argues GW political scientist

Old 01-29-08, 12:35 PM
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Media bias isn't real, argues GW political scientist

Closing the <a href = "http://forum.dvdtalk.com/showthread.php?t=449269">earlier thread</a> for length.

<a href ="http://www.themonkeycage.org/2007/12/more_on_the_media_and_ideologi.html">More on the Media and Ideological Bias</a>

In response to my original post, John Samples of the Cato Institute expands on his comments on the post over at Cato’s blog. Because this is a long post, I’ll respond to several of John’s comments below the fold.

But first, let me highlight a paper cited by another commenter, which is authored by Valentino Larcinese, Riccardo Puglisi, and James M. Snyder, Jr. and is available here:

We study the agenda-setting political behavior of a large sample of U.S. newspapers during the last decade, and the behavior of smaller samples for longer time periods. Our purpose is to examine the intensity of coverage of economic issues as a function of the underlying economic conditions and the political affiliation of the incumbent president, focusing on unemployment, inflation, the federal budget and the trade deficit. We investigate whether there is any significant correlation between the endorsement policy of newspapers, and the differential coverage of bad/good economic news as a function of the president’s political affiliation. We find evidence that newspapers with pro-Democratic endorsement pattern systematically give more coverage to high unemployment when the incumbent president is a Republican than when the president is Democratic, compared to newspapers with pro-Republican endorsement pattern. This result is not driven by the partisanship of readers. There is on the contrary no evidence of a partisan bias — or at least of a bias that is correlated with the endorsement policy — for stories on inflation, budget deficit or trade deficit.

Now, on to John Samples’ comments…

John writes:

[The Gentzkow and Shapiro paper] confirms the original concern (or, at least, a legitimate concern) about liberal bias: responding to readers or viewers leads to a biased or distorted account of reality.

It is difficult to take the G&S findings and construct a specific description of how reality is biased. Essentially, G&S measure ideology by identifying phrases commonly used by either Democratic and Republican members of Congress (extracted from the Congressional Record in 2005) and then examining 433 newspapers (again from 2005) to determine how frequently each of these phrases appear. The measure aggregates across 1,000 different phrases. What is the size of the “bias”? How would this bias be manifest if you picked up a newspaper at random? By the use of the phrase “estate tax” instead of “death tax’? By the use of the phrase “American people” (a top Democratic phrase) instead of the phrase “stem cell” (a top Republican phrase)? By mentioning these examples of specific phrases, I am merely trying to show that it is not easy to decipher what the precise nature of any ideological bias is, given this kind of measure. I suspect that this is why G&S don’t make this finding the headline of the paper.

(Note: I am not critiquing G&S at all. I think their method is inventive and valuable. Using a text-based measure is much preferable to Groseclose and Milyo’s count of how often members mention thinktanks. John also asked if I might discuss the Groseclose and Milyo study. I am going to outsource a critique to Brendan Nyhan and Language Log; see also Groseclose and Milyo’s reply. Brendan’s comments are particularly trenchant, I think. I also prefer G&S to G&M because it covers many more media outlets and is based on a richer set of underlying data — e.g., a long list of phrases used in congressional debate, rather than merely the occasional reference to a thinktank’s research; and, in some cases, newspaper coverage from a longer time span.)

It is also quite important for the broader debate on media bias to emphasize again that the “ideal point” of newspapers is very close to that of their readers. Many of those who claim to see bias attribute it to nefarious influences — e.g., conservative corporate hegemons or leftist journalists. But if “bias” is merely a response to readers than the debate gets short-circuited. If we wanted to eliminate bias, it seems that we have to either ask newspapers to take a “position” that may lose them readers, or give every newspaper a readership in which the average reader is precisely in the middle of the ideological spectrum, however we would measure that.

The latter is an impossibility, unless we’re going to forcibly relocate people. The former gets at another of John’s comments:

Why not relieve the media of market pressure as a way of dealing with bias? That prompts another question: Are NPR and the CPB free of political bias in their reporting and analysis?

Regarding NPR, Groseclose and Milyo would say no, since NPR is estimated a ways to the left of the American public, somewhere in between Ernest Hollings (D-SC) and Connie Morella (R-MD). And I’m not entirely sure that NPR and CPB are entirely removed from market pressures, in that they depend on attracting listeners and viewers (who will donate) and accept funding from private foundations and corporations, although they are certainly better insulated than purely for-profit entities.

It’s difficult to envision a foolproof strategy to insulate the media from market pressures. To do so, we might have fewer newspapers whose corporate parents are publicly traded and thus accountable to shareholders who may care more about dividends than investigate reporting. The Tribune Company appears to be going private, with Sam Zell as its new owner. Of course, then critics wonder if this merely substitutes market bias for the owner’s personal biases (a familiar concern about Rupert Murdoch’s acquisition of the Wall Street Journal). Some suggest a non-profit model, like the Christian Science Monitor. I have no ready answer here.

To me, the biggest consequence of mitigating market pressure has nothing to do with ideological bias. Instead, newspapers worried less out about the bottom line will likely produce more and better journalism because they will not be forced to cut staff or foreign bureaus — changes that are well-documented (e.g., here). That is what consumers and analysts would notice, more than any shift in ideological bias.

Is there a market for unbiased reporting? You would think so, but perhaps not. Maybe it doesn’t matter. We may just dump media messages, bias and all, into the marketplace of ideas and trust that something like an unbiased political result will come out the other end.

Two responses. First, I think there is a market for good journalism, whether or not any one story is on balance favorable to a liberal point of view or conservative point of view, or to a Democratic leader or Republican leader. Good journalism may not be the preference of the majority of Americans, many of whom are not dedicated consumers of news. But some Americans appreciate journalism that goes beyond “he said, she said” to investigate and evaluate the claims of political actors. There are enough such Americans to make good journalism profitable. Second, I do not really know what an unbiased political result looks like. What I do know is that media coverage is but one factor in any political process (elections, policymaking, etc.). So, as John says, there is a sense in which media coverage is “dumped” into a bigger process, where political elites have contending ideas and where citizens (who may or may not be influenced by media coverage) may or may not have strong opinions. All of these things can matter, and thus it is difficult to tease out empirically the relationship between bias in media coverage and bias in some political result, presuming we could agree on the nature of the bias in each case.

The post also prompted the following thought: I have worked on the campaign finance issue for many years now and I have never talked to a reporter from major media who doubted any part, much less the whole, of the reform case. Political scientists have not found that campaign contributions have much effect on members of Congress (see the earlier link). But that has not affected the prior beliefs of reporters . One raw assertion of corruption by Fred Wertheimer outweighs a hundred careful studies of the influence of money on politics. That might suggest that how monolithic liberalism is in the media depends on the issue. But still, do reporters favor reform because they are liberal or because they get to write “Look, corruption!” a couple times a week? Or do they favor reform because it tends to suppress accounts of reality and messages that compete with the product offered by their employers? In other words, do they support regulations that confer directly nonproductive deadweight rents on their employers.

(Note: Some of John’s work on campaign finance reform is in his new book, which I have not read but plan to.)

I vote for “Look, corruption!” In Deciding What’s News — a book that deserves addition to Lee’s list — Herbert Gans argues that media coverage reflects certain underlying values, one of which is “altruistic democracy.” In short, “news implies that politics should follow a course based on the public interest and public service.” When politicians don’t act in the public’s interest — because of corruption, incompetence, or whatever — it is news. This value can motivate journalism that is either liberal or conservative. It is true that Democrats were more supportive of campaign finance reform, which perhaps makes it a “liberal” issue. But altruistic democracy also underlies coverage that some might label conservative, like John Stossel’s “Fleecing of America” segments. Political scandals can support a liberal view (“The government screwed up. It should do its job better.”) or a conservative view (“The government screwed up. It shouldn’t be doing this job.”) A value like altruistic democracy also fits with reporters’ belief that part of their job is to serve as a watchdog and (at least sometimes) identify ways in which political leaders fall short. That to me is the simplest explanation for why journalists cover campaign finance in the way that they do.

More broadly, the values that Gans identifies, combined with the biases discussed by Dan Bartlett in the original post, suggest that the entire debate over ideological bias is misplaced. What if we spent more time questioning horse race coverage of elections — which is as prevalent as ever — than we do wondering if media coverage favors Democrats or Republicans? Commentators spend a lot of time and energy looking for every sentence or paragraph that might suggest ideological bias, when there are bigger biases at work, biases that are well-known and have larger consequences for what media coverage contributes to the public’s knowledge of politics and to broader political debates.
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Old 01-29-08, 12:50 PM
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I haven't heard much made of this part of the interview...

(CBS) In fact, Piro says Saddam intended to produce weapons of mass destruction again, some day. "The folks that he needed to reconstitute his program are still there," Piro says.

"And that was his intention?" Pelley asks.

"Yes," Piro says.

"What weapons of mass destruction did he intend to pursue again once he had the opportunity?" Pelley asks.

"He wanted to pursue all of WMD. So he wanted to reconstitute his entire WMD program," says Piro.

"Chemical, biological, even nuclear," Pelley asks.

"Yes," Piro says.

http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/...94_page6.shtml
And the sanctions were beginning to crumble before we went in.
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Old 01-29-08, 12:50 PM
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Wait- you close an earlier thread with "is real" in the title and open a new one with "is n't real" in the title? Which wing of the press do you work for any way?

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Old 01-29-08, 07:13 PM
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What's the GW reference in the thread title for? I came in expecting another global warming thread -- I need context!
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Old 01-29-08, 07:24 PM
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Originally Posted by X
I haven't heard much made of this part of the interview...

And the sanctions were beginning to crumble before we went in.
The rest of the interview is just as enlightening.
"And what other types of WMDs was Saddam considering?" Pelley said.

"Like what?" asked Piro.

"Well, what about... magic? You know, weapons of magical destruction?"

"Oh, well, definitely," agreed Piro. "Saddam would definitely have been interested in acquiring some kind of magical weaponry, given the chance. He'd talked about someday, um, getting some leprechauns... I've been told he had a definite interest in rings of power."

"And given enough time," persisted Pelley, "would Saddam Hussein have begun developing a mind control program?"

"If we hadn't intervened... it's entirely possible that Saddam would have done exactly that. And worse..."

"Yes?" asked Pelley.

"You mentioned time... it's now common knowledge that Saddam, or Saddam loyalists, would have perfected time travel within three or four hundred years."

"Wow," Pelley said. "So if we hadn't invaded when we did, then Saddam Hussein might have acquired weapons of mass destruction... from the future."

"It was a close call," admitted Piro.
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Old 01-30-08, 08:47 AM
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Originally Posted by Thor Simpson
Wait- you close an earlier thread with "is real" in the title and open a new one with "is n't real" in the title? Which wing of the press do you work for any way?

I thought the same thing.
And all those that said Bush lied all these years based on the 60 MINUTES show turn out to be the ones that lied.
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Old 01-30-08, 08:49 AM
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Originally Posted by wm lopez
And all those that said Bush lied all these years based on the 60 MINUTES show turn out to be the ones that lied.
Did you actually watch the 60 Minutes show?
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Old 01-30-08, 08:55 AM
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All of my time is consumed with the reading of The Bible, Shakespeare, and Hemingway. And, getting pissed off at MSNBC.

When am I going to find time to watch 60 Minutes.

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Old 01-30-08, 11:50 AM
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While I was waiting to hear Edwards' drop out speech, I saw an interesting thing on television. This group (I don't remember the name) did a study of the media coverage of all the presidential hopefuls - both parties.

Bill Clinton received the third most media coverage. Only his wife and Obama received more. A man who's not running received more media coverage than all of the Republicans who were running.

Is this a sign of media bias?
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Old 01-30-08, 12:00 PM
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Originally Posted by wendersfan
Did you actually watch the 60 Minutes show?
The whole thing.
And it seems like Bush did the right thing to go in to Iraq, but not stay there.
In that no way!!!!
Or Bush should have had better communication with Saddam, but as 60 MINUTES showed Saddam didn't like Bush.
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Old 01-30-08, 12:19 PM
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Originally Posted by wm lopez
The whole thing.
OK, so what does this mean to you?:
"He told me that most of the WMD had been destroyed by the U.N. inspectors in the '90s. And those that hadn't been destroyed by the inspectors were unilaterally destroyed by Iraq," Piro says.
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Old 01-31-08, 07:36 AM
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But it seems it would have been best to leave Saddam alone.
And Kerry or Gore would not have invaded Iraq, but only because they don't have the stones to do so. I hope Bill Maher brings this up on his show Friday.
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Old 01-31-08, 08:41 AM
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Originally Posted by wm lopez
But it seems it would have been best to leave Saddam alone.
And Kerry or Gore would not have invaded Iraq, but only because they don't have the stones to do so. I hope Bill Maher brings this up on his show Friday.
I don't know whether Kerry or Gore would have invaded Iraq.

When you're in the top position you might make decisions you wouldn't make as a Senator or House Member or even VP.

I would hope they wouldn't have.
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Old 01-31-08, 10:36 AM
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I agree that the thread title is a bit ambiguous. Media bias is certainly real enough... but not liberal media bias. On the right side, there is extraordinarily open and obvious media bias, lead by papers like the New York Sun, the Washington Times... and of course Fox News.

Salon has an excellent article from MediaMatters about the decline of Fox News. I wanted to lift one quote from the article so I can highlight an amazing video:

So I'm not the only one who feels like Fox News coverage, especially of the Republican field, often feels like a televised wake. Or maybe that's just been Fox News' collective, subconscious mourning of the Giuliani campaign. After all, Sean Hannity serves as Fox News' official ambassador to the Giuliani campaign, a campaign that Ailes and Fox News were hoping to ride back into the White House. Yet despite showering Giuliani with all kinds of laudatory coverage, both Hannity and Ailes have been powerless, as they've watched Giuliani's rudderless campaign go nowhere. Even an all-out Fox News marketing blitz to label Giuliani "America's Mayor" never got traction. In fact, it ranked right up there with the launch of New Coke in terms of branding success. Watch this clip to see the absurdity in all its ad-nauseam glory.

On what planet would any quasi-respectable news division actually engage in an outright media blitz to brand a political candidate? Can you imagine if NBC or CBS had started a campaign to call John Kerry "America's Hero"? Can you imagine ABC airing an hour-long prime time special at the end of Bill Clinton's term called "Bill Clinton: Fighting to the Finish"? The conservatives would have their heads. And yet Fox News is so deeply in bed with the GOP and this Administration that Dick Cheney has to have every television set in every hotel room he visits preset to their station.

So yeah... media bias is certainly real. Just not in the way that some people want desperately to believe.
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Old 01-31-08, 02:14 PM
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Great post. Shows how far removed so many liberals are from reality(if most of their other views isn't clue enough). They see bias when sources don't agree with them. But when the vast majority of newspapers and networks have been proven over and over again by example after example of having a liberal bias, that actually isn't bias but lazy reporting or some other pathetic excuse. Even many people who work for those supposedly "unbiased" networks have admitted that there is a leftward bias.
The best thing that is happening is that circulation for these lib newspapers is in the toilet and continuing to circle the drain. The network ratings are also going down the toilet. Furthermore, when air false stories like the NYT did recently on how Iraq war vets tend to be involved in violent murders, those lies are almost instantly exposed. That is why so many libs are so angry at the blogosphere and sites like Drudgereport.
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Old 01-31-08, 02:33 PM
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The easiest solution for this whole argument would be to abandon the idea of an "unbiased" press. Until the news is written by robots, it will never be unbiased.
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Old 01-31-08, 03:35 PM
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Originally Posted by Tracer Bullet
The easiest solution for this whole argument would be to abandon the idea of an "unbiased" press. Until the news is written by robots, it will never be unbiased.
Thank you for saying this. I completely agree with you.
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Old 01-31-08, 06:41 PM
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Originally Posted by Tracer Bullet
The easiest solution for this whole argument would be to abandon the idea of an "unbiased" press. Until the news is written by robots, it will never be unbiased.
i agree with that as well. ANY thing is going to be biased.
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Old 01-31-08, 07:12 PM
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Originally Posted by Tracer Bullet
The easiest solution for this whole argument would be to abandon the idea of an "unbiased" press. Until the news is written by robots, it will never be unbiased.
How about we substitute the word "agenda" for the word "bias"? There is no unified left-wing agenda in the major news outlets -- but there is an undeniable right-wing agenda among Fox News and their ilk.
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Old 01-31-08, 07:20 PM
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Why do you attach the word 'unified' for the left-wing side but then leave it off the right-wing side? I don't think there is a unified agenda between, say the Washington Times and FNC on the right, no more than I think there is a unified agenda between, say CNN and the NY Times on the left. However there are biases that exist at each of these outlets individually.

Face facts - there is right wing bias or agenda and left wing bias or agenda.
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Old 01-31-08, 10:48 PM
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So if FOXNEWS is Republican then why are they number 1 in the cable news ratings?
Does that mean that the majority of America is Republican after all we put Bush in office for 8 years. And then why are tax dollars supporting NPR radio if the majority of America is right-wing Republicans? I'm sure some will answer these questions with the typical name calling as always.
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Old 01-31-08, 11:48 PM
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Originally Posted by Red Dog
Why do you attach the word 'unified' for the left-wing side but then leave it off the right-wing side? I don't think there is a unified agenda between, say the Washington Times and FNC on the right, no more than I think there is a unified agenda between, say CNN and the NY Times on the left. However there are biases that exist at each of these outlets individually.

Face facts - there is right wing bias or agenda and left wing bias or agenda.
Oh, come on. There is no stated left-wing agenda for any major media outlet. CNN and the New York Times, along with ABC, CBS, and NBC, follow basic journalistic standards. That's clearly not the case for the right-wing media outlets. Fox News, the Washington Times, the New York Sun... all of these slavishly pimp for Republican candidates, while openly disparaging Democrats.

Maybe they don't get together for tea and crumpets, but they all are dancing to the beat of the same drummer.
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Old 02-01-08, 12:03 AM
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Originally Posted by wm lopez
So if FOXNEWS is Republican then why are they number 1 in the cable news ratings?
Does that mean that the majority of America is Republican after all we put Bush in office for 8 years. And then why are tax dollars supporting NPR radio if the majority of America is right-wing Republicans? I'm sure some will answer these questions with the typical name calling as always.
To answer your first question... bear in mind that being number 1 in cable news ratings does not correlate to the American viewing public in general. To put this in perspective... George Bush has, what, about 28% approval ratings? That would equal about 56 millipn people. On a good night, Fox News will get one million visitors. That's less than 2 percent of the people who still support George Bush.

Or compare: ABC News averages 8.1 million viewers for their nightly news program; NBC News averages 7.5 million, and CBS News 6.1 million. Does that mean that Democrats outnumber Republicans 22 to 1? Of course not. Cable news outlets attract a different sort of viewer, and the ratings don't correspond to general public opinion at all.

Also... NPR doesn't get any direct government funding. They get about 2% of their budget from bidding on government grants and programs, but that's all. They get the vast bulk of their funding from member stations, corporate grants, and user contributions.
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Old 02-01-08, 12:45 PM
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Oh, come on. There is no stated left-wing agenda for any major media outlet. CNN and the New York Times, along with ABC, CBS, and NBC, follow basic journalistic standards.
There is no stated bias but it happens naturally because of the political views of who is reporting the news and who decides what goes on the air. It isn't a bunch of editors sitting in their office conspiring to tilt leftwards. It just happens because of their own personal beliefs.
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Old 02-01-08, 01:51 PM
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Originally Posted by NCMojo
Oh, come on. There is no stated left-wing agenda for any major media outlet. CNN and the New York Times, along with ABC, CBS, and NBC, follow basic journalistic standards. That's clearly not the case for the right-wing media outlets. Fox News, the Washington Times, the New York Sun... all of these slavishly pimp for Republican candidates, while openly disparaging Democrats.

Maybe they don't get together for tea and crumpets, but they all are dancing to the beat of the same drummer.

So by 'unified' you actually meant 'stated?'

Regardless, who cares if it is stated or not? I've always said that at least FNC makes no bones about their agenda - they put it out there for all to see. They don't hide their agenda like CNN and the NYT do - those particular outles are far more dangerous if you ask me.
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