PeeJ Opinions: Discussing topics relating to what we do
The Fact-Checking Game

Nothing will disillusion you more about print media than having years of experience being covered by print media. It is typically a medium filled with misquotes, inaccuracies and poor fact-checking. You expect it from a free weekly paper, even often from multi-million dollar papers owned by major corporations. You don't expect blatant inaccuracies and a lack of fact-checking by the Columbia Journalism Review. However, as we've been educated in the lack of quality fact-checking elsewhere, we have recently become aware of it in regards to the Columbia Journalism Review as well.

Writing in an editorial on their website, Douglas McCollam puts together possibly the most erroneous story ever written regarding anything we do at the following link. Since there seems to have been little fact-checking done on this story internally at CJR, we'll publicly do it for them.

McCollam writes in regards to Louis Conradt...
When the prosecutor failed to answer the door or answer phone calls, police forced their way into the house.

False. Police did not immediately enter his dwelling. Conradt was given an hour to open his home for the police. First they knocked, then they called. Then they knocked some more. They even had one of his friends call, but Conradt refused to answer. An hour passed until the police breached. Why would the police breach his dwelling? Conradt, an experienced prosecutor, knew what evidence to destroy. He had already been in the process of destroying evidence moments after the first knock. We ourselves noted that his Myspace account had been deleted in the time we were waiting for police to serve their search AND arrest warrants.

These facts are either purposely or ignorantly left out of McCollam's editorial. We find it hard to imagine that in his research, the author would have missed the fact that Conradt Jr. was actively destroying evidence since it was reported by multiple news sources. We don't know which would be worse... if McCollam purposely did not include the fact that Conradt Jr. was given over an hour during which time he was destroying evidence, then he would be trying to sway the reader with misrepresented facts. If he just didn't do the research in order to find out these details, then he's terrible at doing research. Whether he was being purposely deceitful or ignorant, we don't know. We simply know that CJR needs to tighten up their fact-checking either way.

McCollam quotes Conradt Jr's boss and personal friend...
He is also mystified as to why the police would force their way into Conradt’s home when they could have tried to talk him out, or just picked him up at work the next day.

McCollam once again quotes the situation as being an immediate breach of Conradt Jr.'s house. Once again, untrue. Over an hour was spent trying to talk Conradt out of the house. However, precious evidence inside the house was being destroyed. The purpose of a search warrant is to be able to execute it to gather evidence for a crime. The idea that Conradt Jr. should have been arrested the next day is likewise spurious as local media was running reports of the sting operation the same night. To let Conradt Jr. learn of the sting operation that night on his local media would have guaranteed the destruction of crucial evidence.

Likewise, McCollam goes on to try to blame Dateline for the search warrant being issued on Conradt Jr's home. Once again, he tries to sway the reader with misinformation. A whole day of search warrants was planned against multiple suspects. Conradt Jr. was simply the first individual the police went to arrest. After Conradt Jr. shot himself rather than face justice for his crimes, the police had to deal with the crime scene and that delayed the service of additional search warrants until later that week. Other suspects were arrested in the exact same way that Conradt Jr. was... but they didn't shoot themselves. McCollam leaves this out of his piece, again... lack of research or a willful deception? You decide.

McCollam then goes on to describe the "town meeting" in Murphy...
At a town meeting called to discuss the Dateline sting operations, several Murphy residents expressed outrage that a parade of suspected sexual predators were lured to their community.

Once again, McCollam leaves out the entire details. He quotes that "several" Murphy residents expressed outrage. However, seven Murphy residents offered their own homes for future sting operations with dozens more supporting the police in Murphy, Texas. This fact was again reported widely in Texas media. Once again, either a lack of research or McCollam's own bias meant that any fact that contradicted his overall "view" was not included.

McCollam continues his misrepresentation...
In a sense, Conradt’s death was a tragedy foretold. In a piece for Radar magazine about the show, the writer John Cook quoted an unnamed Dateline producer as saying that “one of these guys is going to go home and shoot himself in the head.”

We're not sure of the Columbia Journalism Review guidelines, but do they include quoting a gossip magazine's "anonymous" sources? Beyond that, the Conradt Jr. suicide doesn't even fit the so-called "prediction" the anonymous source quotes. Conradt Jr. never "went home", as he never arrived at a TCAP sting home, was not aware that it was a TCAP sting operation and never had any knowledge that ourselves or Dateline NBC was in the area. McCollam crediting the quote as being "foretold" ignores the basic facts of the situation, preferring to give the impression that Conradt Jr. showed up at the sting operation, went home, and then shot himself. To date, none of the hundreds and hundreds of predators that have shown up to To Catch a Predator sting houses have gone home and shot themselves. The only suicide even related to TCAP in any fashion is Conradt Jr. who shot himself not because he was on camera (He never was on camera) but due to the fact that police were trying to arrest him.

McCollam then launches into a characterization of those that arrive...
To begin with, the show has an undeniable “ick” factor. The men (and to date they are all men) are mostly losers who show up packing booze and condoms.

Let's ignore the fact that a person posing as a respected journalist quoting people as "mostly losers" strikes us a little odd and focus on the real issue at hand: how inaccurate that statement is. Let's take a sampling of men from say, the last sting aired so far... the Petaluma, California sting. Well over half of the 28 men that arrived had white collar jobs. Vast majority of predators were doctors, computer technicians, software programmers, etc. These aren't homeless men walking in... they are respected professionals in their area in most cases.

Worse, McCollam's own writing contradicts his conclusion of them being "mostly losers." He writes...
snared nineteen more men, including a rabbi, an emergency-room doctor, a special-education teacher, and an unemployed man claiming to be a teacher

Three out of four men that he is quoting can in no way be described as "social losers."

McCollam then blunders into another factual error...
The marks then proffer comical denials about what they are doing at the house, which never include their intent to have sex with a minor.

We don't even really have to go into pointing out what is untrue in this sentence for most readers, as they actually watch the TCAP episodes themselves. He states that the men "never" admit their intent to have sex with a minor. Patently false, once again, the last Petaluma sting featured men admitting to their intent, as did the last Georgia sting. Even as far back as the Riverside sting, some men did admit their intent. Sure, it seems like a small matter to point out but it's just another illustration of a lack of fact-checking.

Then McCollam really starts in with the factual errors...
Starting with the third show and in the five subsequent stings, police were waiting to take down the suspects. In our interview and in his congressional testimony, Hansen is careful to refer to those arrests as “parallel” police investigations, as if they just happened to be running down the same track as Dateline, but the close cooperation is always evident. At a time when reporters are struggling to keep law enforcement from encroaching on newsgathering, Dateline, which is part of NBC’s news division, is inviting them in the front door — literally. Hansen tried to deflect this criticism of the show by saying that the volunteers from Perverted Justice serve as a “Chinese wall” between the news people at Dateline and the police.

First, he attacks Hansen's quote that these are "parallel" police investigations. However, they are and any real fact checking would have illustrated that. Notice that throughout his piece, McCollam doesn't quote the police we work with on these stings to ask them how the stings go down and how much they deal with Dateline. Answer? They don't deal with Dateline. For example, had McCollam simply taken the time to read our own website, he would have noticed the recent "ten things you likely don't know about Perverted-Justice" article.

In it, he should have taken note of the following paragraph...
One of the most interesting claims we've seen lately is that Perverted-Justice and Dateline blow into town and that's all they do, they blow into town and then they leave! Fact is, whether Dateline NBC is going to chronicle a sting operation, it's going to happen regardless. Good example is our recent Flagler Beach sting operation. We had already planned and slotted Flagler Beach for a December sting operation with just ourselves and police. Dateline NBC decided later that they wanted to document this sting operation to show the nation the problem in Northern Florida. Had they not decided that, the sting would have gone ahead regardless.

The investigations are parallel. We always inform Dateline of the sting operations we are going to do. If they're interested in covering one, they cover it. If they don't cover it, they don't cover it. When we do a TCAP operation, we are that stated "Chinese Wall." The police are never inside the home where media is set-up and we do all the organizing. Had McCollam watched any of the sting operations, he would have noticed a man on a walkie talkie speaking to police. That man is Dennis Kerr known on the site as "Frag." Dennis handles the coordination of the sting operation. Chris Hansen isn't talking to police, nor are any Dateline employees interacting with police on any "planning" level. We do the work of planning the law enforcement aspect. As we have shown, we can do these stings with the media alone, with law enforcement alone, or with law enforcement and the media at the same time.

The worst part of his factual errors is when he says that Dateline is "literally" inviting law enforcement in the front door. One of the biggest challenges for us when it comes to coordinating the law enforcement and media at the same time is the fact that Dateline and the police cannot be in the same dwelling. Dateline and the police are staged in different dwellings because of the wall between law enforcement and the media. Our role is to help coordinate the scene between media and law enforcement, running two parallel stings at once.

McCollam then goes on to attack the consulting fee we receive...
On the surface that certainly seems reasonable, but it ignores a few relevant points. First, Perverted Justice is a participant in the story, the kind of outfit that would traditionally be covered, not be on the news outlet’s payroll. “It’s an advocacy group intensely involved in this story,” says Robert Steele, who teaches journalism ethics at The Poynter Institute. “That’s different from hiring a retired general who is no longer involved in a policy-making role.”

Factual errors abound. First, we're not an advocacy group. An advocacy group advocates something. We don't advocate for changes in laws, it's not what we do. We work with police and media in order to expose and jail internet predators. That isn't "advocacy." We're not "policy makers." We're a private investigative unit in general. Hiring us to consult with Dateline on these stings is no different than hiring a researcher in order to find say, a corrupt public official's address. At the Dateline: Virginia taping, prior to our consulting fee, Dateline brought in a paid researcher in order to find out more about the identities of the individuals that were arriving at the sting house operation. However, as we stated and proved on-scene during that sting operation, our research and information on who the predators were turned out to be more accurate than the paid researcher.

Prior to these men meeting Chris Hansen, we often have a field of information regarding who they are. Real names, jobs... when Chris Hansen knew who say, Rabbi David Kaye was, he knew it because we provided the information prior to the predator arriving. We did the background work. Our expertise isn't limited to trolling chat-rooms, we have an entire background research and investigative wing that is used to the hilt during these investigations. Again, no different than a news outlet hiring a private investigator to find out more information regarding the focus of a news story. Media pays consultants all the time, whether they be researchers, polling firms or any other common profession that interfaces with media.

Secondly, we haven't been the focus of any Dateline story since the first story on internet predators. The mention of our organization on "To Catch a Predator" is quick and perfunctory, background information on how the sting gets organized. The idea that "To Catch a Predator" is about us belies a purposeful ignorance of the news show in general. It's called "To Catch a Predator" not "To Watch How These PeeJ Guys Do Things." The show is about predators and catching internet predators. It's about who these predators are, what they do, their backgrounds and the overall epidemic of internet solicitation in general. We're not predators. Show isn't about us.

McCollam goes on...
Second, it is clearly a no-no, even at this late date in the devolution of TV news, to directly pay government officials or police officers. Yet in effect that’s what Dateline did in at least one of its stings. The police in Darke County, Ohio, where Dateline set up its fourth sting in April 2006, insisted that personnel from Perverted Justice be deputized for the operation so as not to compromise the criminal cases it wished to bring against the targets. After some discussion, NBC’s lawyers agreed to the arrangement, which the network shrugs off as less than ideal but an isolated circumstance.

Fact-checking, once again. Three Perverted-Justice.com volunteers were deputized during the Ohio sting. Del Harvey, Dennis Kerr and volunteer "Pibb" who was on-scene. These three volunteers were not paid by Dateline NBC for their work over that weekend. Our organization was paid. Perhaps McCollam would have a point if the entire organization of volunteers were deputized... but they were not. Lead site administration and the volunteers working the rooms themselves were NOT deputized. The consulting fee paid by Dateline NBC isn't addressed to Dennis Kerr or Del Harvey, it's addressed to Perverted-Justice.com. No law enforcement, not even deputized volunteers, were directly paid by Dateline NBC.

Once again, an utter lack of fact-checking or a purposeful mischaracterization of the situation came into play. The paragraph above is widely known and was reported on.

Perhaps McCollam's greatest mischaracterization and lack of fact-checking follows...
Further, though Hansen and Dateline reject allegations that they are engaging in paycheck journalism by paying Perverted Justice — arguing for a distinction between paying a consultant and paying a source for information — the line looks a little fuzzy. For example, Xavier von Erck, who founded Perverted Justice, says via e-mail that the operation had come to a point where it could “not bear any further costs relating to the shows. Hence, we obtained a consulting fee.” In turn, local law enforcement groups have stated that without the resources provided by Perverted Justice they couldn’t afford to do the criminal investigations they’ve mounted in conjunction with the “To Catch a Predator” series. See the problem? But for NBC’s deep pockets, no “parallel” police actions would take place.

He says "see the problem?" and we hope people do see the problem. A complete lack of comprehension on the reporter's part. We made sure to do the interview with McCollam via email, figuring that he was writing an article with a bent against the specials themselves.

Here is what we wrote to him in email...
1. It has been widely reported that NBC pays PJ a consulting fee for its work on the show. How much are you paid and is it an ongoing arrangement? How did the relationship with NBC begin?

Our work with NBC began two and a half years ago when they contacted us regarding the original "To Catch a Predator" which eventually was done in New York State. The first three stings were done by us without any consulting fee. However, it became apparent that Dateline wanted to continue to cover the epidemic of online predators and truly show it's immense scope across the nation. Our organization had come to a point where we could not bear any further costs relating to the shows. Hence, we obtained a consulting fee as the "story" was and is about the predators themselves, not us.

McCollam tries to ram through a non-sequitur. We stated that we could not bear the costs associated with the SHOWS and thereby needed a consulting fee. He extrapolates that we would not be working with police if not being paid by Dateline NBC for doing the shows. This is lunacy. Fact-checking, once again. We have done stings without Dateline NBC and with law enforcement. As previously written, the Flagler Beach sting was going to be LE-only prior to Dateline wanting to film it. It was already scheduled.

A month after the Riverside sting operation, in February 2006, we did a sting operation with the Laguna Beach Police Department. No media involved. No payment. If we were not able to do stings without Dateline NBC and a consulting fee, that sting operation never takes place. McCollam purposely ignores this in order to try to bolster his point... that we cannot "afford" to do police-only sting operations without Dateline. Utterly untrue, as any semblance of research would have revealed. It's even more apparent that McCollam is purposely leaving out information since he knows that we did the Riverside sting operation with police and Dateline without a consulting fee. The entire theory that without Dateline, there are no police investigations is not only spurious, it is an apparent and utter lie told by Douglas McCollam.

The consulting fee was sought due to the immense cost brought on by the shows to us, the SHOWS. Hundreds of thousands of people hit the website after each TCAP. We could not keep our website up during the storm of visitors. That in turn knocks out our communications and hampers our ability to work effectively. During the Laguna Beach sting, for example, the hailstorm of new visitors from To Catch a Predator knocked out our central organizational area. McCollam takes this information and tries to paint it as our not being able to do police stings without media payment rather than noting that the cost of the TCAP shows is due to the exposure they bring. It is perhaps his greatest and slickest assassination attempt, blithely disproven with only the merest of research.

Of course, McCollam is a hypocrite on the issue of a consulting fee paid to us by Dateline as it is. Does he really think that people shouldn't be hired to troll chat-rooms?

McCollam in 2005 from this story
Today the swashbuckling spirit that once encouraged such subterfuge is flickering. Recently when The Spokesman-Review was investigating reports of sexual misconduct by Mayor Jim West of Spokane, it hired a computer expert to pose as a minor trolling for sex in an Internet chat room. Sure enough West asked to get together. But when the Spokesman-Review published that fact as part of a larger story on West’s misconduct, a Greek chorus of editors appeared to condemn the paper.

McCollam then goes on to defend the Spokesman-Review and lament the lack of undercover work in today's modern media. So a print publication that hires a computer expert to troll TARGETING a specific individual is okay, but a newsmagazine paying a consulting fee to a group of computer experts for their work behind the scenes on a news program is bad. Amazing hypocrisy.

McCollam then goes on to defend those caught in the stings as not being dangerous...
There is also the question of whether the series is fair to its targets. Let’s concede up front that this is an unsympathetic bunch of would-be perverts. But are they really that dangerous? Hansen himself divides those snared in the probes into three groups: dangerous predators, Internet pornography addicts, and sexual opportunists. But by Hansen’s own calculation fewer than one in ten of the men who show up at a sting house have a previous criminal record.

But the image projected by the “Predator” series is clearly meant to inflame parental fears about violent Internet sex fiends. The show has invoked the specter of famous child abduction cases like Polly Klaas. The very term “predator” calls to mind the image of the drooling, trench-coated sex fiend hanging out at the local playground with a bag full of candy.

While McCollam was writing this, we were completing our Flagler Beach, Florida sting. With the barest and we mean barest amount of research, Douglas McCollam would have noticed something pretty obvious to anyone that even barely reads our own website. That during the Flagler Beach sting, an active duty police officer arrived at the sting operation with two assault rifles, a shotgun, two handguns, rope, duct tape, knives, restraints, sexual materials, a chainsaw and a boat anchor.

Are internet predators really that dangerous? Of course. Well... if you do the slightest amount of research, that is.

Then, McCollam does his most disgusting mischaracterization of all...
Many express doubts about what they’re doing and have to be egged along a bit by the decoys, many of whom come off as anything but innocent children. Consider a few of these exchanges. In the first, the mark (johnchess2000) is talking to someone he believes is an underage girl (AJ’s Girl). She has agreed to let him come over to watch a movie:
johnchess2000: anything you want me to wear or bring?
AJ’s Girl: hmm
johnchess2000: wow your thinking for a long time
AJ’s Girl: lol sowwy
AJ’s Girl: u beter bring condoms
johnchess2000: wow. condoms???
johnchess2000: wow. your thinking big huh? ;0
johnchess2000: ;)
AJ’s Girl: :”>
johnchess2000: wow so you like me that much? :)
AJ’s Girl: maybe
johnchess2000: maybe?? why did you say condoms?
AJ’s Girl: :”> i duno
johnchess2000: haha. be honest
johnchess2000: you must like me a lot then huh?
AJ’s Girl: yea
AJ’s Girl: ur cute

Of all the chat-logs for Douglas McCallom to claim are "expressing doubts", he certainly picked the wrong individual in Johnchess2000. Of course, he likely knew it, which is why he did not provide a link in his story to the actual chat-log itself.

We will though... Johnchess2000.

If you read those transcripts, you'll note something. First, Johnchess2000 didn't show up at the house for "AJ's Girl." He showed up for "Slim's Girl." Wait, that means he talked to two different... oh no, he actually talked to seven different underage profiles in a short amount of time. McCollam knew this but leaves out the fact purposely. We know this because each chat-log has a conviction report associated with it. From Johnchess2000's conviction report...
This young man hit my 12 year old profile during our sting in Riverside, California. Annnnnd Papa John's 12 year old profile. And Del Harvey's 12 year old profile. And KitKat's 12 year old profile. And Erich's 13 year old profile. And Lady Baltimore's 12 year old profile. And Almond Joy's 13 year old profile. In five days, he managed to initiate contact with seven different Perverted Justice Contributors who he believed were 12 or 13 year old girls.

And he had substantive chat-logs with all seven decoys. Read the actual transcripts we posted of him soliciting seven different minors in five days! And this is the first man who McCollam uses in order to defend the predators caught during the Dateline stings! We've seen a lack of journalistic integrity before, but for such a shocking example to come from the Columbia Journalism Review is truly mind-boggling.

McCollam then mounts his moral high horse and states...
Entrapment is a legal term best applicable to law enforcement. Perverted Justice says it’s careful not to initiate contact with marks, nor steer them into explicit sexual banter. But as these chats and others make clear, they are prepared to flirt, literally, with that line. Under most state statutes passed to combat online predators, the demonstrated intent to solicit sexual acts from a minor is sufficient to land you in jail regardless of whether the minor is a willing participant. So, as a legal matter, the enticements offered by the decoys are of little importance to the police, or to issue advocates like Perverted Justice. But journalistically it looks a lot like crossing the line from reporting the news to creating the news.

Of course, this is based on his interpretation of chat-logs like Johnchess2000's where he makes the case that the decoy "flirted" with him. Of course, he doesn't add the fact that johnchess2000 hit up seven different underage decoys in a matter of five days, all with the same approach, all with the wish to meet them for sexual contact.

That looks a lot like crossing the line of dishonesty to your readers from a journalistic standpoint.

McCollam then continues on with the idea that internet predators aren't a problem...
That doesn’t mean Internet sex predators don’t exist, but Dateline heavily skews reality by devoting hour after hour of primetime programming to the phenomenon. As Poynter’s Tompkins notes: “Is there any other issue that’s received that much airtime? The question is whether the level of coverage is proportional to the actual problem.”

Of course, he then selectively quotes someone from the Poynter Institute trying to make the case that this crime doesn't happen. Problem is, you can't quote an individual that teaches "journalistic ethics" on whether a crime occurs or not. They have no idea, they are not criminologists. At no point does McCollam actually go to individuals with knowledge regarding internet predators and their victims, preferring to slide around having to do so in order to make what he thinks is a grandiose point. Of course, he did talk to those who informed him about the problem, we can say that for a certainty since it was one of his questions to us.

6. In reviewing some of the chat logs with people caught in the TCAP stings, the decoys seem very provocative and sexual. Entrapment is a legal term, but do you ever worry that you are enticing men that otherwise might never commit a crime?

"Some" - We play real kids. Some kids have been sexualized, be it via abuse, popular culture or due to the influence of the internet. For example, we just exposed a pedophile activist that had successfully groomed a 12 year old boy to be his co-host on a podcast he called "pedologues." Some kids we play are total virgin types, no sexual experience. Some have had boyfriends. If we only played one type of kid, we'd be easily "spotted" as being illegitimate in the rooms.

Of course, he doesn't quote us here, because it would undercut the point he wishes to ram through, regardless of whether it is true or not. We have no idea how many people he interviewed for the piece, but we find it telling that he was unable to actually speak to anyone in law enforcement or child advocacy that would back up his overall theory... that child predators and their victims are a "mythical trend." The fact that he even called the victims of internet predators a "mythical trend" spits in the faces of the victims of internet predators.

As a group that actually tracked down an abducted 14 year old female, we find the allegation that this crime does not happen nor is common to be extremely insulting. For Douglas McCollam, facts surely didn't get in the way of his "story." And what was his story? What was his intention in writing the piece? It was to get to the following ending closing paragraph.

If humiliating perverts and needlessly terrifying parents is the best use that newsmagazines can make of hours of primetime television, then perhaps they should be allowed to die and the time given over to the blood sport of reality programming. At least no one would dare to call it news.

Yes, it's just another reporter with his opinion to push through as news and research. Fact-checking and integrity be damned, talking to experts... finding the truth... nah, it's rarely about that with people like Douglas McCollam. It's about writing the "provocative" story. It's about twisting facts, quotes and situations to try to fit the opinion you wish to exhort to the public. If this be journalism, journalism be damned.

You tell the parents of victims of internet predators... no, forget that, tell it to the victims themselves. Tell it to Christina Long, tell it to these two 14 year old girls or this 13 year old girl who was raped or this girl who was threatened if she refused to have sex or this thirteen year old girl or this fourteen year old girl or this fifteen year old or this fifteen year old boy or this fourteen year old girl or this fourteen year old girl or... why are we doing his fact-checking for him? All those stories were found in a less than fifteen minute search online. There's many more, dozens, but to list them all out would be foolish. Why bother doing fact-checking for a publication and reporter who care nothing about facts?

After all, all these females and males, the real ones, the molested ones... probably flirted. They might have even giggled, even. And the predators? Probably all losers, besides, this crime doesn't happen anyways. And even if it does, there are more kids molested by family members so why even bother with the story... wait... no, this is a "mythical trend" that is designed only to "needlessly scare parents." We know this, we read it in a news publication, right?

At the end of the day, it's not a lack of fact-checking. We're sure that Douglas McCollam knows all about these stories and the hundreds of others that are of real kids being abducted and molested by internet predators. We know he knew that Johnchess2000 hit up seven decoys over five days. We know that he knows that we do sting operations without Dateline NBC and that the ones Dateline film are usually going to happen whether they film them or not. We know he knows all this. He just doesn't care.

After all, he's in print media. This is the profession that awards it's highest award, the "Pulitzer Prize." Which is named after Joseph Pulitzer, who along with William Randolph Hearst was the inspiration for the term "Yellow Journalism" due to their tit for tat battle during the late 1800's as competing newsmen. The facts didn't matter to the two men, as they both upped the ante against each other. Ironically and appropriately, it was Pulitzer who in his will left two million dollars in order to found the School of Journalism at Columbia University, the institution that publishes the Columbia Journalism Review. Is it any wonder then, that McCollam would publish the article he did? Is it any surprise?

Nope. After all, nothing stands in the way of a "good story." Not even the facts.

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