A Newsroom Hero

History will record that the plane did indeed fly into the mountain: after a stormy two-year tenure in Atlanta, when the paper won two Pulitzers but Kovach ran afoul of his profit-minded corporate bosses, he left Atlanta to become curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard. This summer he’s returning to Washington to write books and op-ed pieces—moving back into the same house in Chevy Chase where he and his wife, Lynne, and their four children lived when he was the Times’ bureau chief. But while the address hasn’t changed, everything else has. Reporters don’t keep bottles of Scotch in their desks these days unless they want a referral to the Employee Assistance Program, and Kovach is no longer a newsroom bigfoot. He’s a press critic—a role that, depending on prevailing opinion, makes him either a priggish elitist or a self-exiled member of an unruly and irresponsible tribe. His complaints are forceful and particular: The rise of the 24-hour news cycle is tempting journalists to abdicate their obligation to sort out gossip from facts, he says, and turning them into mere conduits for a slurry of fact, innuendo, rumor, and opinion. Reporters are forgetting why they got in the business—presumably, it was to expose vice and give voice to the powerless—in their quests for blockbuster stories and the chance to make big bucks as TV pundits. Media mergers threaten to obliterate the line between editorial and advertising. Things have gotten so bad that even The New York Times used anonymous sources in roughly a third of its coverage of the Monica Lewinsky story, and The Washington Post used them twice as often as that. In other words, we’re not just going to hell—you can actually see hell from here.

Hawk-nosed and white-haired at 67, Kovach speaks with a Southern accent that betrays East Tennessee hill country, but the accent is somewhat misleading: In fact, he’s the son of Albanian immigrants who settled in Morristown, Tenn. in the 1920s after his father, John, won the lease to the town’s Busy Bee Caf in a poker game. Albanian culture is, according to ethnic stereotype, argumentative and prone to nurse grudges; in Kovach’s case, reality fully conforms to the image. Lynne Kovach recalls that in the early years of their marriage, Bill’s fights with his brother Joe would sometimes get so violent she was afraid they would kill each other. After his father died when he was 13, Kovach grew up on the streets “as what you’d call a juvenile delinquent, except for a few teachers in school who kept me in line,” he says. He joined the Navy in 1951 straight out of high school and learned to swim and dive during his military service, returning to Johnson City, Tenn. after four years to go to college on the G.I. Bill. His intention was to become a marine biologist, but a summer job at The Johnson City Press Chronicle between college and graduate school changed that forever. After only three weeks, he had discovered, he said, “what I was born to do.”

The newsroom culture Kovach encountered in the late ’50s and early ’60s at that job and, later, at the Nashville Tennessean could not be more different from newsrooms today, and goes a long way toward explaining Kovach’s world view. In those years, the Tennessean was a rare example of a Southern newspaper that actually sent reporters to cover civil rights marches. (The much richer and bigger Atlanta Constitution, in contrast, didn’t—it earned its liberal reputation solely on the basis of Ralph McGill’s editorial columns.) At the Tennessean, there was a sense in the air that politics mattered on some visceral level, that journalists had a front-row seat at one of the great moral dramas of the century. When Kovach’s friend and future New York Times colleague Wendell L. Rawls joined the Tennessean in 1967, Kovach was already the paper’s top political reporter and owned a coveted piece of real estate in the back row of newsroom desks.

With the exception of David Halberstam, a Harvard graduate who had come South to learn the journalism trade, the staff was made up mostly of Southern boys from lower-middle-class backgrounds who saw their mission in life as (a) changing the world and (b) beating The Nashville Banner by any means possible, even if it meant trying to distract the competition by calling them with phony news tips. After the last deadline, around 1 a.m., reporters would adjourn to a small room in back, someone would pull out a bottle, and a poker game would start. “People didn’t want to leave,” Rawls said. “I’ve seen poker games break up to cover a story, and we didn’t even have an edition left—just to be there. The news was everything. The fun was a close second.”

Even then, Kovach was known for the sometimes inconvenient lengths to which he would go to defend a principle. Editors found him maddeningly stubborn; on the other hand, when the Tennessee legislature wanted to go into executive session one day, Kovach’s adamant refusal to leave even under threat of arrest led to a federal court case which the newspaper won and which eventually led to the nation’s first open-meetings law.

“This is a man who never backed down from a fight, ever—even perhaps when that might have been more prudent,” says Stephen Engelberg, investigations editor for The New York Times, who began his career working for Kovach as a clerk in The New York Times Washington bureau in 1979. At the Times, a disagreement others might have regarded as just one more office intrigue tended to weigh on him. “It wasn’t like Bill to go to the gym after work and lift weights for an hour and forget about it,” Engelberg said. “He often did not look physically well. You could see that these things that were gamesmanship to some people to him were his life.” At the Times, it was at one time a game to turn various names of editors into verbs and give them personality-appropriate definitions. To “Rosenthal,” for instance, meant “to cry when somebody else’s grandmother dies;” to “Kovach” meant “to approach life as if it were a blood feud.”

Kovach owed his hiring at the Times in 1968 to Scotty Reston, then the paper’s executive editor, who decided the paper needed to broaden its talent pool. Reston wrote to friends across the country, asking them to give him the names of the best reporters in their region. One of those friends was Ralph McGill, editorial page editor of the Atlanta Constitution, who sent back a list with Kovach’s name at the top. Only then did Reston discover that the Times’ personnel department already had a thick file: Kovach had been sending the paper his clips for five years. Kovach spent two years working on the paper’s metro desk, with a simple assignment from Abe Rosenthal: Cover New York City from the point of view of someone who has never seen it before, and keep writing the way you did for the Tennessean. To a young man from the rural South, the urban panorama could not have been more exhilarating. “It was like walking into a room full of oxygen,” Kovach said later, though he did quarrel with the Times’ staid copy desk over elements of style. One early battle concerned his description of an overturned abandoned Volkswagen Beetle on FDR Drive, which he described as “belly up,” incurring the wrath of a copy editor who deemed the word “belly” too vulgar for Times readers. Kovach appealed to Rosenthal, and “belly” made it in. Kovach spent less than a year covering the city before the paper, recognizing his skills as a political reporter, sent him to the Albany bureau to help cover the New York legislature. From there, he made the leap to the national desk, moving to Boston to head the New England bureau—a coveted slot, testimony to his quick rise in the Times’ hierarchy.

In Boston, Kovach covered the anti-war movement, which had a major headquarters in Cambridge, and had his second major brush with journalistic history when he spent a weekend helping Times reporter Neil Sheehan copy the boxes of leaked documents that became known as the “Pentagon Papers.” Since it was a weekend and the office bank account was low, Kovach had to write a personal check to cover the costs—which is how, several months later, he came to be standing at his front door early one morning in his underwear being questioned by two FBI agents who wanted to talk to him about the “McNamara Report.”

“I said, I have no idea what you’re talking about, but do you want to come in? Because I’m not standing here in my underwear,'” Kovach recalled. “They said, The Pentagon Papers,’ and I said, I have nothing to say to you. Come in or I’m shutting the door.'” The FBI men went away and a grand jury was convened, but the Bureau’s interest in pursuing Kovach faded once it became clear that Daniel Ellsberg made a much better target. Years later, Kovach said, a source on the Watergate impeachment committee showed him a memo he had come across from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman. “We have found the leak of the Pentagon Papers,” the memo said in part. “It’s a New York Times reporter named Bill Kowitch (sic).”

The Times moved Kovach to its Washington bureau in 1972, where he helped cover the Watergate impeachment hearings before being named news editor in 1974. Two years later, he went back to New York as deputy national editor, then returned to Washington in 1979 to become bureau chief. By then his old mentor, Reston, was a columnist in the Washington bureau. “He would come and sit next to my desk and talk to me about his column or whatever he was working on, but what he was really doing was making himself available in case I had any questions,” Kovach said. “He helped me grow into the job of running a bureau, because I had no idea.”

Yet once he moved from reporting to editing, Kovach proved to be a popular boss. Reporters sensed in him an old-fashioned military sense of loyalty: Until persuaded otherwise, he began with the assumption that the reporter was right and should be backed to the hilt. Doug Marlette, the editorial cartoonist for Newsday who worked for Kovach in Atlanta, recalls one news meeting early in Kovach’s tenure there when he was asked what sort of disciplinary measures to take about a staffer who had been arrested for driving under the influence on an out-of-town assignment. Kovach’s answer: Bail him out of jail and bring him home. “He may be an asshole,” Kovach said, “but he’s our asshole.” The same attitude was in evidence in the late ’70s, when Engelberg was 26 and had just joined the Times’ Washington bureau as weekend editor. Late one Sunday afternoon, he got a call from an editor in New York: Did the Washington bureau think a particular story was strong enough to lead the Monday morning paper? I think so, Engelberg replied, to which the New York editor said impatiently, “No, I want to know what the bureau thinks.” Engelberg called Kovach, who was home mowing his lawn. “Kovach said, The next time this happens, put the phone down, wait 10 minutes, then call them back and tell them whatever you think is what I said,'” said Engelberg. “He made me very confident in a job that I had every reason not to be confident in.” Over the years, that management philosophy has been repaid in kind: on the day Kovach resigned as editor in Atlanta, reporters in the newsroom pooled their money and bought a full-page ad in their own paper criticizing the publisher’s decision to let him go. (They paid cash; the advertising department refused to extend credit.) “I’d walk through hell in gasoline underwear for the guy,” says Rawls, who ran the newsroom under Kovach in Atlanta.

In some ways, Kovach can be compared with Gen. George S. Patton—a renowned battlefield commander whose career ultimately suffered because he lacked the instincts for internal politics. Certainly that seemed to be the case at the Times; Kovach probably would have won a newsroom election picking the successor to Abe Rosenthal, but lost out to the more cerebral Max Frankel, who had earned more of Rosenthal’s trust. Frankel was also better than Kovach at what might be called the diplomatic side of a newspaper editor’s life: the social events and charitable causes that come along with a job as a high-ranking Times editor. When it came to after-work socializing, Kovach usually didn’t see the point. As Washington bureau chief, he said, “I tried to stay in touch with people I thought could help me understand Washington. I went to dinner at Katharine Graham’s house a couple of times. But I was not part of the social set. It was not my nature.”

That attitude may have hurt him in Atlanta, a businessman’s town where the ability to make money, or to cultivate those who know how, carries more social currency than artistic or intellectual achievement. In Atlanta, Kovach earned notoriety for turning down a chance to dine at the home of the chairman of Coca-Cola not once, but twice—a faux pas that, in Atlanta terms, is the equivalent of declining an audience with the Pope. (Kovach says he was out of town both times.)

The Atlanta business and political elite did not know what to make of Kovach: here was this Southern editor with a decidedly un-good-old-boy way of approaching the news. Early in Kovach’s tenure, a story broke about a local civil rights leader who had developed a cocaine habit, a fact that came to light when he, his wife and his drug supplier got into a fight in the driveway of their home. A delegation of black leaders arrived in Kovach’s office to ask him to hold the story because it would embarrass the man in question and would, they said, reflect poorly on their community. It was a request they had every reason to expect would be honored; the Atlanta papers had a long history of ignoring the city’s black community. To their surprise, Kovach refused. The issue, he said, was not the scandalous details, but the fact that Atlanta police were not vigorously pursuing the case—and besides, if the person involved had been a prominent white community leader, he would no doubt run the story, and he didn’t propose to judge blacks by a different news standard. The black delegation went away disgruntled that day, but soon discovered that the same inflexible standard applied elsewhere, too: In the time Kovach was in Atlanta, an aggressive recruitment drive raised the number of minorities on the paper’s reporting staff from 10 to 17 percent.

To many Journal-Constitution reporters, Kovach’s arrival was cause for celebration. The paper’s previous editor, Jim Minter, had been reclusive, given to cryptic two-sentence memos and unceremonious firings of reporters who displeased him, often for reasons the reporter himself was not sure about. To a staff browbeaten into habitual timidity, Kovach’s reputation as an editor who would actually back them up was almost too good to be true. “I’ve always wanted to go to The New York Times,” said one long-time reporter, summing up the moment’s general giddiness, “and now The New York Times is coming to me.” In the journalism world, Atlanta was suddenly a talent magnet. One of the new reporters Kovach hired was a lanky Tennessean named Bill Dedman with a knack for deciphering financial data, who began an exhaustive computer-assisted study of the home mortgage lending practices of Atlanta’s banks. The results showed a systematic pattern of discriminatory practices which made home loans more expensive for black families and which in many cases prevented them from buying houses at all. Dedman’s series, “The Color of Money,” won a 1989 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting—the first reporting Pulitzer the Atlanta papers had earned in 20 years. One year earlier, Doug Marlette had won a Pulitzer for his incendiary editorial cartoons, and the paper also had an unprecedented five Pulitzer finalists. In the aftermath of “The Color of Money” series, a consortium of Atlanta banks pooled their resources to offer $150 million in home mortgage loans to the city’s minority communities.

“If there’s one thing that is a hallmark of Kovach’s journalistic creed, it is that the role of the newspaper was to make a difference in the lives of the readers,” said Rawls. On the day that the bank consortium announced their $150 million loan pool, he recalled, “I came in [Kovach’s] office and he had this huge grin on his face, and he came over and hugged me and he said, We made a difference, by God.’ And I’ll never forget that.”

Yet, in the end, it was another intrinsic part of Kovach’s personality—his difficulty in backing down from a fight—which was the proximate cause of his resignation, which came about in a November 1988 confrontation with Publisher Jay Smith over a minor dispute involving the paper’s Washington bureau. The dispute arose in an atmosphere of distrust between Kovach and the corporate higher-ups; just weeks earlier, while Kovach and his wife were on vacation in Italy, the corporate office announced draconian cutbacks in the newsroom budget, even though they had promised Kovach to make no major changes while he was gone. Kovach had already decided his days were numbered-though, he said, “I determined then to stay on for another year and prove I could take their journalism-on-the-cheap budget and still put out a great newspaper.”

But then the Washington bureau flap arose. Even though the Atlanta papers were the flagship of the Cox chain, the Washington bureau was run by the corporate side, which put the editors in Atlanta in the odd position of having little direct control over the paper’s most important bureau. Kovach had been lobbying to change that, and in early November had at last won a promise from his corporate bosses that after the elections, he would take charge of a major reorganization of the bureau. At the same time, he had also won permission to hire a particular photographer he knew from his Washington days to run the photo department in Atlanta.

Concerned about other job offers his candidate was entertaining, Kovach called the same day to ask him to sit tight, that a formal job offer was imminent. The next day, the photographer was having lunch with a friend from the Cox Bureau and let slip a remark about possible “changes” in the bureau. That ignited a gossip hotline which led directly to the office of bureau chief Andrew Glass, who knew Kovach did not like him. Glass immediately telephoned Smith demanding an explanation, and Smith in turn called Kovach into his office to demand that the rumors about the Washington bureau be stopped. “What rumors?” Kovach reportedly asked, not knowing about the lunch. The conversation escalated rapidly, with Smith implying that Kovach was the source of the rumors and Kovach heatedly disclaiming any knowledge, until at last Kovach said testily—as he had on a couple of earlier occasions—“If you don’t trust me any more than that, then maybe I ought to quit.” This time, Smith stunned him by replying, “I accept”—apparently having expected Kovach to say, “I resign.” Kovach, losing whatever tenuous hold he had on his temper, snapped, “Then you can take this newspaper and shove it up your ass,” and stormed out. Kovach’s closest friends—Rawls chief among them—maintain that the incident was a set-up, that Kovach’s enemies in the Cox corporate hierarchy were trying to pick a fight so they could get rid of an editor they regarded as not a team player.

The corporate bosses were right about that: Kovach was not on their team. His idealistic vision of what the Atlanta papers could accomplish ran counter to the commercial instincts of Cox Enterprises—a bottom-line, diversified organization that viewed its biggest cash cow, the Atlanta papers, as simply the most valuable of its many products. Kovach had been hired by Garner Anthony, the husband of Barbara Cox Anthony, who with her sister, Ann Cox Chambers, owned the entire Cox chain. But Kovach had never been liked or trusted by the corporate people below Anthony, and when a family squabble forced Anthony out of his corporate responsibilities not long before the November 1988 showdown, Kovach lost the only person in the Cox hierarchy who sympathized with what he wanted to do. What he wanted to do was not just expensive, it did not at all fit the USA Today-style formula Cox management wanted—short stories, lots of bright graphics, celebrity news and reader-friendly features. “They never had the faith,” Rawls said later, “that a superior product would attract a buyer.”

Kovach’s vision also ran counter to forces outside the paper which were already subtly altering the way reporters saw their jobs. Rawls remembers, “the first thing the business editor would talk about at news meetings was how the Dow closed.” At the time, Rawls says, this was puzzling to him and Kovach. Talking about the Dow closing number was about as exciting as talking about the ambient temperature: exciting only in extremes. But in a decade in which more and more employers were converting pension funds into 401Ks, Wall Street was beginning to take on a personal significance to people. It was happening inside newsrooms, too: The big chains, like Gannett, were beginning to be publicly traded, most reporters had 401Ks that owned a piece of their own newspaper’s stock, and upper-level editors were being rewarded with even juicier stock options. The professional mores of the Huntley-Brinkley era were entering the age of AOL/Time Warner; shareholders began competing with readers for reporters’ allegiance, if for no other reason than reporters were becoming shareholders themselves.

“It was the development of a world that looked on the audience of journalists essentially as consumers,” Kovach says now. “But the minute you reduce journalism to commerce, it’s lost its utility to a democratic society.”

That was a train of thought he had plenty of time to explore and amplify over the next decade, though not in the tumult of the newsroom. News of Kovach’s resignation had hardly hit the AP wire when he got a telephone call from his old friend Howard Simons, then the curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard. Simons, who was ill with what turned out to be terminal cancer, was thinking seriously of resigning; was Kovach interested in his job? For Kovach, who had hardly planned to be leaving daily journalism at the relatively young age of 55, the transition to academia was at first wrenching. Others see it as fortuitous. “I think it was great that he wound up where he did, at Harvard,” says Newsday’s Marlette. “I don’t think he can have a good influence anymore within the system.”

What Marlette is referring to has become Kovach’s major theme as a press critic: the distortion of journalistic standards by commercial pressures. In his latest book, Warp Speed: America in the Age of Mixed Media (co-authored with Tom Rosenstiel), Kovach argues that the current fixation on profit margins and market share in most of today’s news media has fostered an unhealthy competition among news outlets to pursue sensational blockbuster stories and to ignore subjects that may be more complex or harder to present. News has become a kind of infotainment; Monica Lewinsky was merely the inside-the-Beltway version of O.J. Simpson. It’s a process, he thinks, in which technology has greased the skids. The Internet has erased any time journalists once had to deliberate and evaluate facts before somebody makes them public. The proliferating number of news outlets makes it a seller’s market for news sources, who can spin with impunity because reporters depend on them more than ever. The need to fill in the empty spaces in a 24-hour news cycle blankets the airways with empty blather and polarizing argument, much of it offered by reporters who have signed fat television contracts to offer instant “analysis” on events of the day.

If you want to make yourself unpopular in Washington media circles, this is the way to go. Journalists are notoriously thin-skinned—especially inside the Beltway, where being at important events is often confused with being important, and egos are as beautiful and various as soap bubbles. “A lot of my old colleagues have changed their opinion about my value to journalism,” Kovach says, which may be an understatement. For example, he says, he and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd are no longer on speaking terms. (Dowd says she has “the highest admiration” for Kovach, but that he hurt her feelings some years ago when he was quoted as saying her news stories appealed more to the emotions than the intellect. “It sounded to me like he was saying I write like a girl.”) Still, the ranks of the press exiles are growing.

In recent years, a striking number of reporters have walked away from prestigious jobs, citing their disillusionment with the business: Paul Taylor, formerly of The Washington Post, for example; Tom Rosenstiel, formerly of the Los Angeles Times; Deborah Potter, formerly of CBS and CNN. The refugees “are beginning to coalesce into a tangible movement,” writes Howard Kurtz, press critic at the Post, but that has not made them popular with their former colleagues. What Kovach and his fellow critics are saying “can be very useful in terms of constructive criticism, but it can also strike some journalists as a tad self-righteous,” Kurtz adds.

In fact, some of Kovach’s targets say he sounds like a man railing at the incoming tide for getting his ankles wet. “It does seem a little priggish and a little out of touch with reality,” says Michael Isikoff, the Newsweek correspondent who broke the Monica Lewinsky story and who has been taken to task by Kovach in print for signing a lucrative television contract. “The fact is we live in a commercial world where the market for what we’ve done traditionally isn’t what it used to be.” He laughs. “We’re all working for dinosaurs, anyway.”

Isikoff’s last remark is a common sentiment these days in the print media, where editors nervously discuss market penetration and how to beef up coverage in the suburbs. At smaller papers, the anxiety takes the form of staff cutbacks, front page redesigns and gimmicks designed to catch the reader’s eye, but even more prestigious dailies have been nervous for a while.

At The Washington Post, for example, a stream of memos from Managing Editor Steve Coll in the last year and a half have tried to whip up the enthusiasm of the troops for better writing, more precise and inclusive reporting, stories that have zest and sparkle. But the memos go to a staff that is, by industry standards, exceptionally well-paid and who in many cases come from the educated middle-class—people who have never worked at Wal-Mart and have never known anybody who does. Sensing their growing disconnection from their audience, papers like the Post now place great emphasis on diversity in hiring, in an effort to better reflect different segments of society, different mores, and points of view. But worthwhile as that goal is, Kovach points out, it inevitably reflects the fragmentation of society at large. And that makes it harder for the press to play the role it began to assume during the civil rights movement—to be the forum where various factions can reach some kind of consensus on what social problems need addressing, and what to do.

So what is to be done? Kovach and Rosenstiel devote only one chapter of Warp Speed to answering that question, and their answer boils down to values: News organizations need to decide what their values are, and make those values clear to both their reporters and their readers. Exactly what those values should be the book doesn’t say—Kovach says he and Rosenstiel are addressing that question in a book they are working on now—but a guide to the answer Kovach has in mind lies in the attitudes he developed as a reporter in the South during the civil rights movement. “The civil rights movement forced journalists of my generation to confront a social problem,” he said. And once that happened, “the scales fell from our eyes.” The job of journalists then, he said, was to show the rest of the country how big a price it had paid for the evils of segregation—in short, to tell the truth. It’s a concept prominently mentioned in the work he has done in the last two years with the Committee of Concerned Journalists, a group that’s been conducting forums around the country involving 3,000 journalists from every segment of the media. The group has come up with a set of written principles it thinks should govern news reporting. Reporters have an obligation to the truth, and to put the interest of the readers before anything else; they must monitor power and give voice to the voiceless and to provide a forum for the public; they must use ethical means of verifying the facts; they must maintain their independence from factions and make the news engaging, relevant, comprehensive and proportional. And, above all, they must remain true to their personal conscience.

The idea of some kind of journalistic mission statement is not new: Adolph Ochs’ ethical credo is still printed at the top of every New York Times, and Eugene Meyer’s is on the wall of the lobby of The Washington Post. Still, it’s a measure of the cynicism of our times that mentioning a devotion to the truth makes one immediately suspect as some kind of ideologue. And many journalists today resist the idea of a written set of values for other reasons: its potential use in litigation (a reason Kovach finds irritatingly wimpy) and, more importantly, the fact that real life is inevitably too messy to be contained in any one-page statement. When CBS “Sixty Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman knows he has a news source with proof that tobacco companies deliberately tweaked their product to increase its addictive potential, but who is bound by a private confidentiality agreement, does he not enlist the help of a state prosecutor to get that information into a public record—even if, by doing so, he becomes part of the story? When The Washington Post has the contents of President Clinton’s deposition testimony in a matter that involves possible impeachment, does it not tell its readers because the information came from an anonymous source?

“I don’t know how you not run those stories,” says Bob Woodward, an assistant managing editor at the Post. “If [Kovach] was down in the trenches doing it, he pretty much would have done the same thing.”

Well, maybe. Probably, in fact. But the difference, Kovach argues, is that he would have let readers and viewers know exactly what was done to get those stories, why it was done, and what standards were used to judge the newsworthiness of a story. “Transparency does two things—it levels with the recipient of the information and it forces the journalist to seriously examine his principles,” he says. There will inevitably be times when circumstances seem to dictate the violation of one principle or another, he acknowledges. In such cases, “the reporter balances the public interest against the spirit of the principle” and decides which wins out.

But news is a business that does not breed this kind of deliberative thinking; there’s always the next day’s paper to get out, the broadcast coming up in 10 minutes. Buffeted by the whirlwind of the 24-hour news cycle, what journalist could possibly keep his balance on such an ethical tightrope?

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