Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Update on Rosen's rollback: be careful what you wish for

[Note: the following is an update to this post from yesterday.]

Reader Rick Ballard has kindly let me know that Jay Rosen has pulled the plug and closed comments on the Bay/Rollback thread. Rosen's reasons for doing so remain somewhat murky to me. But there is no doubt that he had an unusually intense reaction to the discussion there--a discussion that I have to say seemed rather mild and decorous to me compared to some I've seen in the blogosphere.

Although I am somewhat at a loss to know exactly what is going on with Mr. Rosen, it is clear that he is embarrassed. Very very embarrassed.

He tells us so himself, in the final comment he lodged before closing the thread down:

I'm embarrassed that this thread appeared at my weblog. I'm embarrassed that something I wrote and edited was the occasion for it. I embarrassed that the letters "edu" appear in the Web address at the top of this page, since most of this is the opposite of education. I'm embarrassed for having entertained, even for a second, the notion that Austin Bay, a Bush supporter and war veteran, might get a hearing for some of his warnings from those who agree with him on most things.

And I've had enough of anonymous tough guys with their victim's mentality raging at their own abstractions...

Those who wish to continue can head over to Austin's thread, where the story is pretty much the same. But four days of this pathetic spectacle is enough for me. Thread closed. My advice: Go home to your wives and children, and breathe some truth.

The entire thread plus its comments section is so long that I hesitate to ask you to go over to Rosen's blog and read it, but without doing so it's hard to get the full flavor of the discussion that so angered Mr. Rosen. But fortunately blogger Neuro-Con has done us all the service of summarizing it extremely well in this post. Neuro-Con's analysis of the back-and-forth exchange is very much in accord with my own, so rather than reinvent the wheel, I gratefully direct you to his post.

The entire situation becomes increasingly puzzling once one learns more about Mr. Rosen. On the face of it one might think his reaction is that of an elitist ivory-tower academic, resistant to hearing from readers, and interested only in controlling the discussion. His behavior on the thread in question certainly points in that direction.

But that has hardly been Rosen's profile in the past. In fact, for more than a decade, Rosen has been a vocal champion of "people-first, bottom-up 'public journalism'."

And that's not all. Just two short months ago Rosen won the Reporters Without Borders 2005 Freedom Blog award for "outstanding defense of free expression" (see here).

And then there's this October 2003 interview with Christopher Lydon. Here is Rosen speaking:

The terms of authority are changing in American journalism...Blogs are undoing the system for generating authority and therefore credibility of news providers...And the one-to-many broadcasting model of communications--where I have the news and I send it out to everybody out there who's just waiting to get it--doesn't describe the world anymore. And so people who have a better description of the world are picking up the tools of journalism and doing it. It's small. Its significance is not clear. But it's a potentially transforming development...I like [it] when things get shaken up, and when people don't know what journalism is and they have to rediscover it.

Is this the same Jay Rosen who shut down the comments section with the stern and vaguely archaic (not to mention sexist--which is actually the least of its problems) "Go home to your wives and children, and breathe some truth"? (By the way, the expression had such an odd tone that I Googled it, thinking Rosen was quoting some famous saying of which I wasn't aware. But I couldn't find a source. Does the phrase ring a bell with anyone?)

Here's another conversation in which the Jay of old was a participant. He was actually the interviewer in this one, speaking about a year ago with Dan Gillmor, a syndicated technology columnist who does most of the talking. Note the extreme relevance of the following passage, and Rosen's responses:

Gillmor: The first thing we'd need to do is listen, pay attention to what is being said. To really get out of the lecture mode that we've been in and to recognize that something new is going on that will benefit not just our journalism--which of course we want to do--but benefit the people who are reading or listening to or viewing our journalism. Those are the people who we say we want to serve. So, the conversation part of it--the listening part, the responding part--is not just for journalists. It's for all of us, it's for everybody. And it comes back to what I've made a kind of a cliche in my own world, which is that my readers know more than I do.

Rosen: I want to ask about that cliche, because I don't think it's a cliche. I think it's a major insight. First of all, tell me what happened to make you realize "My readers know more than I do." And why didn't it just freak you out?

Gillmor: Well, it did freak me out at first. But what happened was, I went to Silicon Valley in 1994 to write about technology. And I wrote about it in a place where most of the people I was writing about were already on email. And invariably they knew collectively much more than I did. You know, you write about tech in Silicon Valley, by definition your readers know more than you do. And I saw that happening, and I thought, "Hmm, this is really different." And then I thought about it and realized that it wasn't different at all, that it had always been true. That whatever the subject I was writing about, the people who cared enough about it to read it knew more than I did--collectively. It was only now, however, that there was a quick-response mechanism --this feedback loop established through email at first and then later through other tools, that made it possible for them to let me know, in a hurry. And I can assure you that people in the Valley are never shy about letting you know when they think you're wrong or when you're missing something.

Rosen: So, it's not just, "My readers know more than I do." It's, "My readers know more than I do and I can tap that because they will tell me."

Gillmor: Exactly. The ability to find out things that you don't already know and then to incorporate them into what you do in the future--it's a great advantage for any journalist. I think all journalists on any beat need to understand that this is an opportunity. It's not remotely a threat. And journalists have skills that the people writing to us may or may not have. And why don't we, in the best sense of the expression, all take mutual advantage of this situation to do a better job?

Rosen: Well, let's cut a little deeper into that. Because even though what you say is logical, and good advice, I can think of lots of reasons why "My readers know more than I do" might be resisted by journalists. For one thing, the basic transaction in mainstream journalism is understood to be--I'm the journalist. I know things because I've done my reporting. I've inquired, I've asked questions, and I've hunted down documents. And you don't know. You weren't there. You're not a reporter. You don't have the time. You're off living your life. And so the whole idea of informing the public, informing the readers, assumes that the news organization knows and its customers--as it were--don't.

And secondly, the authority of the journalist--the way it has evolved in the United States--is very much tied up with the journalist knowing things that others don't. Having access that others don't. Witnessing things that others can't--a press conference, etc. And it's almost like in the deep grammar of American journalism, the assumption is that knowledge moves from the news organization to a public that lacks it. So, it's not surprising to me that "My readers know more than I do" is hard to grasp.

So strangely enough, in this interview of about a year ago, when Rosen described so well the thought process of journalists who try to exercise authority over their readers--a sort of intellectual snobbery on their part--he also ended up describing the tenor of his own response to the comments in that recent thread. His insight was both eerie and prescient--applied to himself. The very thing he noted in so many journalists seems to have worked its irresistible siren call on him.

So this is my question for Jay Rosen: have you forgotten this interview? If so, could you perhaps read it again, and review the idea of the new journalism as a conversation, a conversation that you cannot control by the force of your authority?

My guess is that Rosen is an idealist who truly does believe (or thinks he believes) in extending the principles of democracy to the institution of the press--what he calls "public journalism." Ideally, that is; in his head. I'm not sure, though, that he has the stomach or the heart for the results--the sometimes messy and unwieldy reality of a truly public forum such as blog comments, in which the press is often accused of bias.

If Rosen wants a conversation, he certainly got one on his blog. It may be a demonstration of the old saying: be careful what you wish for.

[UPDATE: Dean disagrees.

Here's a copy of my response to Dean, which I posted as a comment there:

I certainly agree that any blogger has the right to cut off comments for any reason, any time, on his/her blog. You have that right, I have that right, and Jay Rosen has that right, which he exercised.

However, to those who haven't plowed through the comments section in question, I'll say that that particular thread didn't seem to feature a high volume of nasty attacks on Mr. Rosen himself. Nor was it even a particularly rabid group of comments in general, especially considering its great length. Comments threads sometimes degenerate into mindless name-calling, but this one had quite a bit of substance--and, in the main, I think people were trying to be relatively polite (especially for the blogosphere) and to discuss the issues. That's why Rosen's behavior seemed so puzzling to me.

What's the significance of it all, and why bother talking about it? Is Rosen "just a guy?" Well, of course he is. But he is also a guy who is a champion of the idea that journalists need to engage in a conversation with readers, of "people-first, bottom-up 'public journalism' ". When in that thread he seemed to cut off such "conversation" in an especially testy and condescending manner, and seemed angry that people were accusing the press of bias, his behavior was arguably both hypocritical and a microcosm of the larger issue of whether the press is guilty of arrogance and one-sidedness (the subject matter of many of the comments). So, although certainly not of earth-shattering importance, his act took on a somewhat larger significance than the simple and rather unremarkable fact that Jay Rosen had closed down comments on a particular thread.


At 3:25 PM, August 23, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I highly suspect that his past interviews were theory and this is practie.

People support many things when it's applied to someone else (lets raise taxes on the rich - they deserve it! Wait, I'm rich? Lower taxes!!).

If you want to see how much people believe what they say see what they do when it is applied to them in a way they do not like. Many times free speech and such flies right out the door.

At 3:56 PM, August 23, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gilmor is reaching for a phenomenon which is considerably more common than writing tech in Silicon Valley.

Whatever happens, there are people making it happen (production of iron, say) and/or people whose profession or avocation is watching it happen (hurricanes, say).
These people know more than the reporters who come in when something's popping, or when absolutely nothing else is going on.

Anecdote after anecdote--not to mention personal experience--shows that when people who are actually involved in something are asked how it's reported, they routinely and consistently say the reporting got it wrong in important ways.

So when a guy working at a foundry finds the media can't tell iron from steel, he ought to think they can't tell very much else, either.
The general failure of the public to apply this rule is journalism's salvation.

IMO, we want information so badly we'll take it, no matter what we ought to think about it.

At 4:04 PM, August 23, 2005, Blogger MDIJim said...

I read the first posting by Rosen. It seemed to contain the usual stuff one sees in comments, and I stopped reading about halfway through. Saying and demonstrating that the media are biased because of background, education, and daily experience is not the same as saying that the media are pursuing a political agenda. You have to take it as a given these days that honest journalists have got the message and they are trying their best to recognize and compensate for innate bias. With Bush and Iraq, however, things are different. The coverage of Cindy Sheehan is pushing a political agenda. Yes, it is a slow month. Yes, public protest by the mother of a dead soldier is obviously newsworthy. But nothing is said about her reaction to her initial meeting with Bush. Nothing is said about her past political involvement and some of the statements she has made. Nothing is said about her son's voluntary enlistment and reenlistment. Nothing is said about her son volunteering for the mission that resulted in his death. Nothing is said about the likely consequences of a precipitate pullout from Iraq. Perhaps Rosen does not want to believe that the media sometimes do their thing in pursuit of a political agenda. People with friends and relatives in the military get a different picture from what is reported in the media. Why? Is that effectively supporting suicide bombers in their mission of destabilizing Iraq despite the heroic efforts of our soldiers and marines?

At 4:53 PM, August 23, 2005, Blogger RattlerGator said...

Jay is in a box constrained by his vocation. As an example, here is one comment from him and my response based on a post during the RaTHergate flare-up:

[1] (Jay Rosen responding)

Well, Tim. I may well have been too heated. Or extrapolating overmuch, as I often do. I was trying to say that while I can, did, and perhaps will again express my outrage at CBS, I reserve the right to think it ever so slightly outrageous that you do ask me: where is your statement of outrage, Jay, as if I have some obligation to declare myself by a certain time, or to condem Rather for this because I hit someone else for that. I'm not saying you put it that way, but perhaps you'd like to explain... what does Gee, Jay, where's the outrage? mean, and, underneath the words themselves, what is it asking me to do?

But what I really want to know is... what significance is there in when I express outrage at Rather and CBS? "Unless I missed it," you wrote, "that's the first time you've expressed your outrage on this."If I were Colin Powell, then it seems to me you have a point. First time outrage expression for a secretary of state is news. I represent no one but my self and my writerly obsessions. My "positions" on things, while they exist, I often choose to de-emphasize in my writing.

Yet I see your point. Links and a few sentences, which I recommend as a comment style, leave much room for misreading.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at September 16, 2004 12:24 AM | Permalink

[2] (my response to Jay)

Jay Rosen, I'll tell you what I want and expect from you. A news conference. One announcing how outrageous the conduct of CBS and Dan Rather is and what an absolute stain it is on the craft of Journalism.

When I entered school at the University of Florida, it was with J-School in mind. I did in fact enter the program but soon left -- it was a great program but quite time consuming and really focused on the craft. I wanted to study more of the world. I think I made a good decision. I'm still a news junkie, though, and I am disgusted with CBS.

But I'm more disgusted with the J-School deans (yes, I mean this -- these people are usually substantial figures within Journalism circles in their state) and the editorial boards of major newspapers around the country. Like someone said above, WHERE THE HELL IS THE OUTRAGE???

This action by CBS should be publicly condemned. How hard is that?

This isn't some garden-variety stunt at CBS but all of you guys seem to be treating it as something close to garden-variety stuff that comes with the territory.


Posted by: RattlerGator at September 17, 2004 08:54 PM | Permalink

Now, maybe that was over the top but I was completely blown away by CBS and could not believe there was not a complete and resounding condemnation of their actions. He didn't seem to share my disbelief and as chair of an influential department, saw no public role for himself.

At 5:59 PM, August 23, 2005, Blogger Promethea said...

It's clear that people like Rosen live in their own small worlds and don't have much contact with other people. They think that because they read a lot, they're well informed.

When anonymous commenters question their beliefs, Rosen-types assume that the anonymous people are stupid--that they are the Christian rightwing fanatical obese stupid American public we're always hearing about.

I've learned a lot just by reading military blogs and Iraqi blogs. Has Rosen even looked at any of these blogs? I doubt it. The Rathergate scandal was outrageous--attempting to use the public airwaves to throw an election by means of FORGED documents. If I were rich like George Soros, I would use my billions to prosecute CBS so that MSMs wouldn't try to commit a crime of this magnitude again. Rosen probably thought it was just a "little thing."

P.S. I'm an expert on the kind of tiny world that Rosen lives in. Been there, done that. I could write a book--and maybe I will. ;-)

At 6:03 PM, August 23, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jay Rosen is only doing what human nature drives most uf us to do. He
accentuates positive views and stays mostly mute on contradictory
ones. It's kind of tricky to escape unscathed once the gauntlet has been set. The Bay -Rosen exchange has a lesson for us all. Be ready to back-up your convictions.. there is no room for half-measures in the blogoshere.

At 7:47 PM, August 23, 2005, Blogger chuck said...

Perhaps it is revealing that Prof. Rosen assumed that folks would know what his parting remarks meant. Instead, we are all scratching our heads. Maybe he needs to get out more.

At 7:56 PM, August 23, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This Rosen bit has the ingredients of a world class comedy. Act 1: Wise man in the castle declares his job is to "feed and sustain" the poor people outside. Act 2: Wise man decides to go out into the world, let the poor people bask in his glory for a day. Act 3: Poor people are rude and ill-spoken; they seem ungrateful! Act 4: Wise man retreats to castle in panic, vows revenge on the poor people. Act 5:? Think what a Moliere or Aristophanes could do with this. --timmah!

At 8:12 PM, August 23, 2005, Blogger Larry said...

On the comment thread to your previous post on this, nittypig quoted from an interesting earlier post of Rosen's, but I think misinterprets the quote. Here's a bit of Rosen:

Similarly, “making a difference” was never a good enough standard for teaching or doing journalism. It was a lazy idea, the press putting one over on itself.

nittypig says that "You can see that he's clearly on the side of the 'make a difference' rather than the 'impartial' side. But he sees that it's a choice." But that's not what I see. The title of Rosen's post (taken from a panel of the same name) was "Things I Used to Teach That I No Longer Believe", and this quote, coming near the end, reflects a kind of weary disillusionment with certain ideals, values, goals, politics, and perhaps with the culture generally. Here's how he ends it:

Later the language of politics took its revenge, and overwhelmed “mission” talk, which had failed to impress the public, as well, because it was increasingly non-descriptive. Natalee Holloway [CourtTV?] mocks the mission night to night. Culture war mocks the mission left to right. And in the mutually incomprehensible classroom encounter the mission is clearly expiring. It seems to me we’re better off knowing that.

To my mind, this places his reaction in the subsequent post in a different light, perhaps explaining his irritability. He seems like someone whose mind is changing, but doesn't like to be pushed.

At 9:26 PM, August 23, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You will find the expression 'breathe truth' in this speech from Richard II:

The Columbia World of Quotations. 1996.

NUMBER: 51852
QUOTATION: O, but they say the tongues of dying men
Enforce attention like deep harmony.
Where words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain,
For they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain.
He that no more must say is listened more
Than they whom youth and ease have taught to glose.
More are men’s ends marked than their lives before.
The setting sun, and music at the close,
As the last taste of sweets, is sweetest last,
Writ in remembrance more than things long past.
ATTRIBUTION: William Shakespeare (1564–1616), British poet. King Richard II (II, i).

OHFP. The Unabridged William Shakespeare, William George Clark and William Aldis Wright, eds. (1989) Running Press.

At 10:06 PM, August 23, 2005, Blogger who, me? said...

There is some kind of hot button about the "bias" argument, about which he seems to think there is NO MORE to be said. See comments at http://goodandhappy.typepad.

The closedown of the Bay/Rollback comments has the same fed-up quality. I don't get it, and he really hasn't explained himself. He must think he has...

At 10:36 PM, August 23, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To who, me?:

Or perhaps he thinks he doesn't need to.

At 11:15 PM, August 23, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The fact that he closed down the comments in and of itself means nothing. Unlike most blogs, he always closes the comments on a topic after a certain point, seemingly regardless of where the discussion is. I guess when he's ready to move on to a new topic he doesn't want to bother with the old one any more.

However, in this case, the manner of the closing was certainly eye-opening and jaw-dropping. I don't know what was going on but can only conclude there might have been a personal situation transpiring behind the scenes (perhaps tied up with his vacation) that we don't know about. Either that or he just finally reached a personal breaking point that was building up in him. Maybe he needs a sabbatical and not just a vacation.

Somewhat off the direct topic but also mentioned by Neuro-con is the matter of Steve Lovelady. Why he apparently is a member in good standing of the PressThink comments thread is beyond me. While railing against the more conservative oriented bloggers regarding their debating techniques and style, Jay gives Steve Lovelady's juvenile, illogical, and snide posts a completely free pass. At least based on his posts at PressThink, I honestly can't even comprehend how Steve Lovelady has a job in journalism, let alone a job at an outfit that is supposed to monitor and critique journalism. I wouldn't hire him for my school paper.

Every once in awhile he fools me with a semi-sane post but usually I only have to get a few sentences into one of his comments before it's entirely clear whose posting it is and I find myself shaking my head in disbelief at the utter inanity of what he's saying. I'm not talking about disagreeing with his politics, I'm talking about the utter lack of a logical and consistent argument in most of what he says. And when people call him on that he almost invariably sidesteps their point and goes off on a completely different (usually more personal) tangent that serves as cover for him to escape from the rhetorical noose closing around him. And yet Jay never seems to have a problem with it. If I were in Jay's shoes, and Jay's profession, that's what I would be embarrassed about.

At 2:32 AM, August 24, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would also add something I've notice from the "j-school" blogs. I've never read them before and have in the last few weeks because of the number of links i have seen. Never really cared too much.

You know, I can be vain and arrogant, in fact an arrogant bastard from time to time - but I don't hold a candle to these people. Notice the parts quoted - the guy never realised that his readers know (only collectivly) more than he does on his subject? Well damn, what the hell did I go through 7 freaking years of college and 5 as a junior researcher for? All I needed to do was be a journalist and I could only be beaten by the collective might of silicon valley! Umm, know what buddy? I bet I know more singularly about technology than you do - ever written a b-tree, A binomial tree, hell even a bubble sort, know what the halting problem is, know why proving p=np is the wet dream of every comp sci researcher (or even what p or np means)? No? So why did it surprise you that we know (collectivly) more than you do about technology? Arrogance doesn't even begin to approach that attitude. I've dedicated my freaking *life* to this field of study and you are surprised that many of "me" know more than you do about it? No freaking wonder they do not handle criticism well and don't research their topics well - they are already experts on everything.

I always found the term "J-school" to be somewhat self important, but I gave the benefit of doubt that it is like typing "comp sci" - lazy bastards trying to shorten things with a touch of arrogance (I only use CS in context with other computer scientist, the vast majority of people I know do so also). I don't use the phrase "comp sci" in real life and I know no one who does. Turns out that "J-school" is the actuall term used in conversation. Even law professors don't talk about "L-school".

*sigh* maybe I'm being too harsh here. But people shocked, shocked they say that computer scientist know more about tech news than a journalist (but only collectivly), going into it to "change the world", and figure thier profession is so grand it only needs a letter "J" - well what does one expect?

At 2:51 AM, August 24, 2005, Blogger Tom Grey said...

Jay's trying to change his mind without changing his mind (or losing his mind?).

He should read your fine posts on it.

There is Moral Hazard to a Free Press, where more US Soldiers die than if it was merely Public Relations for Bush.

Journalists need to deny this issue.

At 10:17 AM, August 24, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn’t there any justice in the universe? Why does life have to be so difficult for Jay Rosen? The journalism professor is irritated because he is so kind hearted and wonderful---and yet, a number of people apparently fail to appreciate these virtues. Rosen has nothing to learn from the hoi polloi and is going out of his way to share his wisdom with the unwashed masses. The rabble believe that the MSM despise President Bush, want the war in Iraq to fail, and help the Democratic Party achieve its goals. Should he perhaps reread Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in America for comfort and guidance? Why can’t these intellectually challenged individuals learn that Rosen and his highly credentialled buddies are merely objective, dispassionate, and above the fray? It’s merely a matter of the elite possessing a far better grasp of these issues. Why does Rosen waste his time with such ungrateful louts? Alas, If they were only students in his class. He could fail them and be done with it. This Internet blogging stuff complicates everything. Why can’t we go back to the old days when the MSM and rest of the liberal establishment exclusively ruled the roost?

At 8:46 PM, August 24, 2005, Blogger David said...

Most of the posters here seem to be missing the point. The comments that riled Jay were clearly the ones that essentially accused the press of treason. Once that charge is made, there really is no room for further discussion. If reporters are traitors, then they should be prosecuted, not roasted over a blogging flame. If they aren't traitors, then those making the charge must either apologize or offer a choice of weapons. Either way, the time for talk has ended.

My own take is that reporters aren't traitors, and those making the charge without taking their case to a grand jury are either liars or cowards.

At 5:12 AM, August 25, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, David, Jay made several comments over the course of a fairly long period of time alluding to how awful the thread was without explaining himself at all. He was exceptionally unclear and generally condescending in his upset with the entire thread.

Every single blogger is frequently going to get all sorts of posts in a comments thread that make statements the blogger finds absurd or ridiculous or wrong or so foolish as to be not worth bothering with. So what? That goes with the territory. If Mr. Rosen wants no comments on his threads, or if he wants to ban everyone who says something that he considers outrageous, that's his prerogative. But it certainly goes against his stated intent of encouraging dialogue. Does one shut down a conversation because of a few hecklers?

And this "treason" thing--by no means did most of the posts on that thread critical of the press accuse it of treason.

Did you read Neuro-Con's critique of Rosen? Here is a relevant quote from it:

Most importantly, though, Rosen misses the point of the very first commenter, who stated (inter alia) ""the goal of such a press is Public Relations against Bush, implicitly supporting the death squad terrorists in Iraq." To which Jay responded: "Did you hear that? The press, in effect, supports the death squads who are murdering innocent Iraqis-- and journalists!" In the context of his post, Rosen seems deeply offended, as if the MSM has been accused of explicitly or deliberately supporting the terrorists, and as if he has never heard of Orwell's critique of the pacifist Left in WWII and its applications today.

At 5:35 PM, August 25, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Point 1

We don't have duels anymore.

Point 2

If the press are traitors, then we cannot shut down the press as that would go against conservatism. A Democrat can get away with lying to the press and intering Japanese-Americans, but a Republican is not adept at Propaganda enough to get away with it. Therefore a Republican must diminish the negative effects of a press, regardless of whether their negative actions reach treason levels or not.

Point 3, since point 2 supports rollback, and Rosen doesn't like rollback, Point 2 is ignored.

Point 4, When Republicans talk about treason, negativity, and what not, it is not the same as the Democrats saying Bush Lied. Democrats say Bush Lied because they know it to be a fact, Republicans are open to a debate about the aid and abetting of the enemy by journalists.


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