The 'new news as no 'news': US cable news channels as branded political entertainment television.
It's a knife fight for every viewer. (Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC, in Sherman 2010)
When you're clear about who you are, you actually make money. (Sharon Otterman Chief Marketing Officer, MSNBC, in Stelter, 2010)
I got shot. People get shot in this business. (Jonathan Klien, former president of CNN, in Sherman, 2010)
There is not much that has escaped the critical eye of American comedian Stephen Colbert, host of Comedy Central's The Colbert Report, in his perfectly crafted parody of bloviated right-wing cable television talk shows and their hosts. Yet as damning and indicting as his performance is of the enormous egos, rampant narcissism, partisan bias, ideological fanaticism, elision of facts and manipulation of viewer emotions that occur within these programs, Colbert nevertheless underplays one crucial matter: that the characters he mocks derive from and exist within cable news channels. These are not simply stand-alone programs, untethered from their programming entities. They are part of broader corporate television operations that brand themselves as 'news', yet produce an array of political entertainment programming designed to attract and retain viewers across each 24-hour programming day. Given that Colbert's character is an amalgamation of current and former US cable news personalities such as Lou Dobbs, Anderson Cooper, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Chris Matthews (Jones, 2010: 185-86), he is pinpointing most of the major figures around which all three major US cable news networks--CNN, the Fox News Channel and MSNBC--have built their brand identity, structured their prime-time programming and look to for a sizeable portion of their profitability. (1) In short, what should not escape our attention is how such programs are central to what US cable news networks have become: branded political entertainment channels within the broader cable media marketplace.
Much discussed in journalism studies over the last two decades is how US television news has undergone tremendous transformative change as the result of technological innovations, new competition, economic imperatives and socio-cultural shifts in audience viewing patterns and expectations. As viewership has migrated away from the three evening newscasts of the oligopolistic broadcast networks to other news sources, including three highly competitive 24-hour cable news channels, the rather static norm of what constitutes television news has undergone radical change. In that process, scholars have attempted to come to terms with what this means for journalism in particular, and democracy more broadly. In those assessments, the primary interpretive frame is based on the professional norms and standards of mid-twentieth century journalism. That frame employs two narratives: one largely focused on decline, the other on what has been constructed in its place.
The first narrative derives from 'traditional journalism', and its evaluations are based on a set of characteristics deemed central to the professional craft of journalism, the conventions and normative standards that supposedly ensure the proper output of information that can be deemed journalistic. These include standards such as objectivity, fairness, accuracy, verification and editorial judgement, as well as those that should be absent from the practice, such as sensationalism, partisanship, bias, speculation and assertion (Kovach and Rosenstiel, 1999; Rosenberg and Feldman, 2008; Ben-Porath, 2007). Similarly situated (from a normative perspective) is the narrative of 'infotainment'. Here the focus is less on what has been lost and more on what has come to take its place. News has become an unholy marriage of information and entertainment, the argument goes. Largely due to commercial pressures, entertainment strategies--sensational narratives, attention-grabbing visuals, a focus on celebrity, a privileging of conflict, drama and spectacle, and so forth are seen as dominant. The resulting assessment is still one of loss, as infotainment news is labelled a variety of terms, such as 'tabloidisation', 'entertainmentisation', 'Foxification', 'soft news' and so forth (Andersen, 2004; Baum, 2003; Thussu, 2008; Cushion and Lewis, 2009; Graber, 1994).
These assessments are not necessarily incorrect. Descriptively, the standards and norms of traditional journalism have been replaced, and the imperatives of entertainment stylistics and content in a highly competitive marketplace are real and materially manifest. And normatively, there is little doubt that an impoverished news culture is one that is generally detrimental to citizenship and democracy. What we should consider, though, is whether a journalistic frame is the best means for examining, assessing and understanding exactly what the new news currently is or has become. Put rather baldly, to continue assessing cable television news through the lens of journalism is a mistake. Reality television isn't assessed by the norms of the documentary tradition, nor are television adaptations of Jane Austin novels examined by the standards of literary criticism. Yet cable news continues to be seen as journalism, in no small part because these channels continue to use the familiar generic banner of 'news', thereby poaching the authority and legitimacy (both culturally and politically) formerly established by broadcast news operations (see McNair, 2000: 78-79 for a discussion of the 'fetishisation of authority' in news). Having 'news' in the logo and employing standardised news presentational conventions and styles does suggest a relationship to current events and public life, but does not accurately reflect the goals and intentions of what are, at their core, highly competitive cable television networks. What television studies scholars can add to these critiques and analyses, then, is the suggestion that we focus more strictly on what drives, motivates and structures these channels as television productions--that is, those factors that are central to the competitive business of cable television programming.
Cable news channels are now politics channels--or, better yet, they are cable television networks that, at this moment, use politics as the central identifying mark of their brand. Perhaps like MTV and its eventual decision to remove 'music' from both its programming content and corporate logo, the cable news networks may one day be something other than politics channels. But it is clear that what has already been dropped is 'news', in any sense of what that term has traditionally meant both within and outside of television journalistic practice. Cable news networks are now in the business of transforming the raw material of public life into entertainment performances. To be clear, this argument is not similar to the 'infotainment' argument discussed above, largely because of the false presumption maintained in that school that these are news operations that have dumbed down the news to make it more attractive to distracted audiences. The argument here is that these are entertainment operations, first and foremost--economic entities that, rather than program reality shows about home makeovers and fashion design contests, use political life as the arena of interest for a different kind of reality show. Perhaps this was seen most explicitly when, in 2012, News Corporation announced that it would split into two companies--a news and publishing company and an entertainment company--yet Fox News would be housed on the entertainment side (Chozick, 2012). (2)
Certainly the cable news channels continue to employ the modernist discourse of journalism, as well as the tropes and conventions that traditionally have defined the genre (e.g. Fox News's 'Fair and Balanced' tagline, reporters talking over video evidence, and so forth). And to a great extent, those rhetorical and textual practices are successful in convincing audiences to continue reading the genre as they always have: as 'news' (Bedard, 2011). Furthermore, as Langer (1997) argues, such television presentations may in fact have value within viewers' lives as news. But the ultimate point here is not to locate correct labels or definitions ('this is or isn't news') as much as to establish that the media enterprises that produce and sell cable television news are more closely associated with the broader production of entertainment television than an older ideal of 'journalism'. The concerns of journalism as a professional practice are of minimal relation to the demands of the cable marketplace. And while certainly there are many editors and managers who are professional journalists (in all that such professional credentials and identity bring to bear), their good intentions and professional commitments do not negate the fact that the production of cable news today is dominated by the demands of the business of television. As the epigraphs that began this article suggest, the logic that drives the production of cable news networks is not journalism, but the cut-throat, hyper-competitive market that is television.
One of the better treatments of this phenomenon is James Compton's The Integrated News Spectacle (2004). For Compton, the political economy of 24-hour news mandates the necessity of certain types of mediated cultural performances. In particular, he examines spectacular media events such as the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, the death of Princess Diana and the Iraq War as rationalised and organised consumer products mobilised for the broader promotional logic of the cable news networks. As Compton argues:
Cultural performances are subject to the logic of promotion. Moreover, spectacular stories are integral to the profitability of 24-hour news organizations. CNN, MSNBC, and the Fox News network survive on the timely arrival and speedy, efficient exploitation of large-scale media events. These news organizations need spectacular media events to survive. Spectacular stories and their personalities increasingly have become central to the business of journalism. (Compton, 2004: 53)
Compton's argument is compelling and precise in the economic details that connect content to corporate news decisions. Yet the argument falls short, in some ways, by ignoring the programming that occurs outside of these spectacular events--that which is more the norm than the exception, yet which Compton finds less consequential than big media events. Explanations of what compels viewership beyond the attractions of spectacle (which again has ramifications for non-spectacle moments) are not seriously entertained. Certainly citizens love a bloody car wreck, but what about those moments that don't carry the same frenzied attractions, yet repeatedly draw millions of viewers, such as the presidential primary debates, routine presidential speeches or morning talk programming such as Fox & Friends: the number one show of all cable television programming from 7.00-9.00 a.m.? In short, while Compton offers a masterful accounting of the promotional logic behind the political economy of media corporations (and the resulting texts), the argument is nevertheless shortsighted in understanding the broader identities of the news networks as they seek to attract their particular niche viewers before, after and in the absence of these spectacular events. Furthermore, Compton's argument does not address this fundamental question: why watch the latest spectacle on Fox rather than CNN? The broader business of product differentiation, branding, consumer choice and viewer loyalty is absent. Part of the answer is that the choice of politics has become a central means for branding.
Another important but unsatisfying critique of cable news comes from scholars who have begun recognising the centrality of politics to what cable news has become. They focus on the particular audience niches attracted by the networks, and label what they find 'niche news' (Stroud, 2011; Baum, 2008; Prior, 2007). The argument is that, given greater choice in news programming and increased control in viewing options, people tend to seek out politically like-minded news (from cable, but also talk radio and the internet), a process they dub 'partisan selective exposure'. Conservatives are seen as migrating to Fox News, while liberals show preferences for CNN, MSNBC and any of the three broadcast networks (which ultimately means--as this research ignores (3) --that liberals are interested in news provided by any source other than Fox News).
While this literature is burdened with numerous problems, the primary weakness is that the main determinant of viewing, in such a formulation, is partisanship, which ignores an array of other factors that may influence viewing behaviour and choice. These might include things such as competence, dynamism, timeliness, importance or appeal of anchors, showmanship, feelings of community, relaxation and fun, and so forth. As it turns out, many of these factors are just as significant as ideology in viewer perceptions and assessments of cable news brands, according to Chan-Olmsted and Cha (2007, 2008). These authors also report, surprisingly, that 'the viewing motivation of informational learning, which underlines the logical value of news, does not significantly contribute to any of the personality dimensions of the network news examined. It is possible that television news is no longer the leading source for informational learning.' (2008: 42, emphasis added) Which is to say that people choose between competing brands for reasons other than the perceived value of the information presented. This may include, for instance, the dramatic or entertainment quality of presentations, or the feelings of community encouraged there. In short, cable news channels have every reason to distinguish their brands on the basis of something other than the information itself. The argument here is that they have done just that.
Of brand and politics
The flaw over at CNN is a television flaw. It's not opinion versus non-opinion. They're going to please neither side. (Keith Olbermann, former MSNBC host, in Sherman, 2010)
Fox figured it out that you have to stand for something in cable. (MSNBC president Phil Griffin, in Sherman, 2010)
In their study of cable news channels, Chan-Olmsted and Cha (2007: 135) argue that 'distinctive and meaningful "news brand images" are becoming more critical in the race of ratings supremacy in this media market'. Jeff Zucker, former CEO of NBC Universal (MSNBC's parent company) puts it even more starkly: 'In television, and in particular cable television, brand is everything.' (Sherman, 2010) As I have argued, brand has supplanted traditional journalistic practices as the central and driving force in constituting cable news. The theme around which news brands are built is primarily politics (Stelter, 2011).
The advent of 24-hour cable news channels meant that, despite the notoriously expensive costs associated with the production of news, the networks would not only need to find inexpensive means of filling airtime (such as a heavy reliance on talk and commentary), but they would also need to produce programming with more variety, stylistic flair and audience appeal beyond a reliance on the traditional means of packaging events and public affairs information if they hoped to attract and sustain viewers across day-parts. Furthermore, with competition amongst three 24-hour channels (not to mention business news and headline news channels), it became 'necessary for news organizations to brand their output, give it exchange value in a marketplace containing many other superficially similar brands' (McNair, quoted in Compton, 2004: 77). A reliance on 'breaking news' and 'rolling news' does little to distinguish the channels, since all three can cover events in like manner--though Cushion and Lewis (2010) consider these more significant in other national contexts. And while talk and commentary are important, they are not sufficient to construct a successful and viable brand, as was demonstrated for over a decade by MSNBC. What cable channels need is an identity, a hook on which to build performances that offer some means of distinction. That identity has largely come through politics.
Fox News was the first to discover that rejecting the traditional rules of journalism and embracing an overt identification with and projection of a political ideology could be ratings gold (see also Cosgrove, 2007 for a discussion of conservative branding techniques). There are many critics and observers (including President Barack Obama) who contend that Fox News, as fiercely controlled and managed by its president, Roger Ailes, is not just conservative, but an outpost of the Republican Party. As one former News Corporation executive put it: 'Everything Roger wanted to do when he started out in politics, he's now doing 24/7 with his network.' (Dickinson, 2011) David Frum, former speechwriter for President Bush, suggests the connection between the network and Republican politics is more intense than that: 'Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us. Now we're discovering that we work for Fox.' (Dickinson, 2011) Fox's full-body embrace of conservative politics has made it distinctive, especially in its overt charge that everyone else in the mainstream media is its opposite (e.g. liberal).
When MSNBC finally embraced a full-fledged lineup of liberal commentators after the 2008 election to challenge Fox's ratings supremacy from the left, it changed its tagline to 'The Place for Politics'. The channel's president, Phil Griffin, noted how the slogan 'gave us the focus we never had' (Sherman, 2010). More recently, the network branded itself with 'Lean Forward', a label that Griffin argues 'defines us and defines our competition', implying that Fox News offers backward-looking conservatism (Stelter, 2010). CNN, on the other hand, has attempted to maintain an image of old-line journalistic professionalism. 'Our business model is based on quality journalism and nonpartisan programming,' says Ken Jautz, president of CNN. It is also getting creamed in the ratings, with a decline in viewers of 40 per cent between 2009 and 2010, and a 20-year low in prime-time viewership in 2012 (Sherman, 2010; O'Connell, 2012). Nevertheless, the channel has recognised that politics is the only game in town, and has thus embraced politics as a central identifying marker of its brand as well. After CNN's primary slogan, 'The Worldwide Leader in News', the network has adopted lines such as 'CNN = Politics' and 'The Best Political Team on Television'. CNN benefits from political event viewing, such as political party nominating conventions, presidential speeches, the hotly contested Democratic presidential race in 2008 and, more recently, the competitive 2012 race for the Republican presidential nomination. In each instance, despite its refusal to embrace a partisan or ideological identity, it has chosen to construct an orgy of new media and digital technology as its primary presentational stylistic within political reporting, presumably to make its expertise and competence in the digital age (which it sees as its brand image) materially manifest (Carr, 2010). In sum, each of the networks employs a differentiated branding strategy some through overt partisanship, others through technological mediation or their global reach, but all explicitly political in the end.
Performing politics, crafting community
The perhaps puzzling question is why would three cable channels decide to craft their brand image around, and compete over, politics--especially when Americans are notoriously antagonistic toward politics (as observers such as de Tocqueville, Mark Twain and Will Rogers noticed long ago)? How did news become equated with politics? The answer is best seen in the actions of Fox News, which demonstrated how to mobilise such antagonisms through dramatic performances. Not only did Fox show that it could take the raw material of public life and translate it into compelling social drama (as anthropologist Victor Turner and rhetorician Kenneth Burke argued about news more generally long ago--see Bell, 2008: 95-113), but that it could perform such social dramas in entertaining ways that were explicitly political. Journalist Gabriel Sherman (2010) insightfully describes Fox's crucial discovery: (4)
The news, especially political news, wasn't something that happened. It was something that you shaped out of the raw data, brought out of the clay of zhlubby, boring politics, reborn with heroes and villains, triumphs and reverses, neverending story lines--what TV executives call 'flow.' And the beauty of it was that the viewers--the voters--were the protagonists, victims of evil Kenyan socialist overlords, or rebels, coming to take the government back. There was none of the on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand relativity crossfire that mirrors the journalism-school ideal of objectivity. All the fire went one way. The viewers, on their couches, were flattered as the most important participants, the foot soldiers in Fox's army; some of them even voted.
News, then, is a drama that invites involvement because, as politics, it is threatening, contestable, contentious, and more. And while this is, of course, a rhetorical move by the networks, it is also one based on performance. Fox has mastered the techniques of translating public life into compelling aesthetic performances as threats to the viewers' core beliefs and values, presentations that grip viewers, lead them to tune in regularly and encourage loyalty to the brand. As I have argued elsewhere, Fox performs such ideological narratives across all of its day-parts--from morning through midday until late in the evening (Jones, 2012; Jones, forthcoming). By operating from an ideological perspective, Fox can more easily engage in what Kenneth Burke called 'God and Devil terms'--'an us-versus-them rhetoric that allows for conflict, victimage and scapegoating' (Burke, 1966: 54-55). Fox has mastered performances that rhetorically transform public life into private fears and threats. (5)
But the brilliance of the move is in flattering the audience. Television flattery isn't necessarily new--as Robert Stam (2000: 363-65) noted about TV news years ago:
the first pleasure of the news, then, is narcissistic ... We become, by virtue of our subject position, the audio-visual masters of the world--television transforms us into armchair imperialists, flattering and reaffirming our sense of power ... News programs are designed, on some levels, to enhance the self-image of His or Her Majesty the Spectator.
But in the competitive market of cable news, such flattery has been key to the success of attracting niche (and often loyal communities of) viewers, as with US cable television programming more broadly. Just as ESPN does through its suggestion that its young male viewers are clever enough to get its ironic narrations of sports clips, and Bravo does by flattering its middle-aged female viewers as the ultimate judges and arbiters of taste in its fashion, modelling and cooking reality programs, Fox flatters its viewers by demonstrating their savvy in cutting through the lies of the 'liberal media' and 'socialist politicians', and knowing what really constitutes reality. Fox has identified the enemy, and repeatedly tells the viewer that, together, viewer and network will be vigilant in addressing and countering the scourge.
In many ways, we live in a post-trust society--at least with regard to institutions such as politics and news media that traditionally have provided forms of public representation. As Stephen Coleman (2005) argues, the digital era is distinguished by the search for more direct forms of representation, including those enabled by new communication technologies. But that search has also led to citizen attractions to non-traditional political actors in the public realm, including cable media showmen such as former Fox News host Glenn Beck, satirists such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (Jones et al., 2012) and new-styled 'journalists' such as Fox News host Bill O'Reilly (Peters, 2010). Jon Stewart recognises this role by arguing that his program, The Daily Show, and Fox News are similar in that both 'are expressions of dissatisfaction' with political life, including traditional political voices ('Jon Stewart Compares', 2011). Furthermore, prime-time cable news magazine programs such as The O'Reilly Factor, as Chris Peters demonstrates (2011), offer an emotionally based 'experience of involvement' that traditional journalism did not provide. In each instance, this search for trust, representation and involvement has increased viewer loyalty to cable brands such as Fox--a measure that has been key to its success as the cable news ratings leader for a decade.
The post-network television era is also marked by a fundamental transformation whereby media corporations are, as one CBS executive noted about his own organisation, 'transitioning from being a content company to being an audience company' (James, 2007). That is, television networks can no longer assume that the production of quality content will be a distinguishing or determining factor in what programming audiences choose, as news networks often assumed in the oligopolistic era of limited viewing choices. Now they must deliberately craft intensive relationships with viewers, and formulate connections that will encourage routine and repeated viewing (Jones, 2009a). Developing and marketing a distinctive and attractive brand is one important way, but so is the intentional formation of community. One means by which Fox has attempted to shape community is through feelings of victimisation and shame. As Rick Perlstein, the author of Nixonland, puts it: '[Roger Ailes] takes the shame of people who feel that they are being looked down on, and he mobilises it for political purposes. Roger Ailes is a direct link between the Nixonian politics of resentment and Sarah Palin's politics of resentment. He's the golden thread.' (quoted in Dickinson, 2011) Feelings of community, then, can be achieved by exploiting viewers' needs and desires for representation--even if only through a distant television network that offers its commonality in the fight against an imagined, dangerous 'other'.
Never mind that such 'others' may have no basis in reality. What performativity theory highlights (as articulated by theorists such as J.L. Austin, Jacques Derrida and Judith Butler) is how speech acts can create such realities through their utterance (Loxley, 2007; Bell, 2008). What Fox News has done, by divorcing traditional standards of journalism from its programming and embracing political entertainment television instead, is create opportunities for an array of fantastical 'realities' to exist simply by their utterance and repeated iterations across all programming day-parts (and the belief that only its brand can be trusted) (Jones, 2012). The hosts of the morning talk show Fox & Friends, for instance, can turn a planned Islamic community centre in lower Manhattan into a 'Ground Zero Mosque' that might serve as a 'command centre' for global terror networks (Jones, forthcoming). Midday News host Megan Kelly can conjure the spectre of racial fear and hatred by accusing the New Black Panther Party in Philadelphia of white voter intimidation in the 2010 mid-term elections. Late-afternoon talk show host Glenn Beck can force the resignation of Obama appointee Van Jones by branding him an 'unrepentant Communist revolutionary'. And prime-time talk show host Sean Hannity can continually stoke Obama 'Birther' rumours--that is, contending that the president is not a legal citizen of the United States because he was supposedly born abroad. The 'truth' in each of these instances--something that in previous eras would depend largely on confirmation and verification by other news agencies discovering and reporting the same thing--is less important than the ideologically dependent 'reality' created through such performative moments within a single network (though often echoed through other partisan and ideologically aligned media). Furthermore, these performances have proven highly effective in promoting a branded cable channel that can be counted on to provide just such alarming narratives (and 'truths') for the loyal viewing audiences attracted to such 'believable fictions' (Jones, 2009b).
Fox News, of course, is not just competing with other news networks. It is competing with all US cable channels, and often beating most of them in that race. For instance, Fox News ranked number five amongst all cable networks in the second quarter of 2011. It sells itself to advertisers as a 'top 10 upscale basic cable network' among 25-54-year-olds with household incomes over $100,000 ('Fox News Channel', 2011). And the network made over $800 million in profits in 2010--nearly one-fifth of News Corporation's global profits, rivalling those of the company's film division (Dickinson, 2011). As one journalist recently summarised, Roger Ailes is responsible for 'pioneering a business model that effectively monetises conservative politics through its relentless focus on the bottom line. "I'm not in politics," Ailes recently boasted. "I'm in ratings. We're winning."' (Dickinson, 2011)
This is all possible because cable news networks are no longer in the business of journalism. They are cable channels that program political entertainment television as a means to distinguish their brand. Such entertainment can be manufactured from the field of politics, that realm of public life that routinely serves up gripping dramas that are easily packaged in a variety of ways. This was demonstrated most recently when all the US cable news networks teamed with the Republican Party and Republican presidential candidates to air a series of over 20 televised presidential debates. The debates drew between five and ten times normal viewership during prime time, with millions more watching through online streaming. The networks all invested heavily in production, renting larger arenas, crafting new theme music and employing new technology and expanded commentary staff. These specially programmed debates served as tent-poles for the networks, showcasing their talent, lending prestige to their brand, attracting viewership for candidate interviews and increasing clicks online (Stelter, 2011). With colourful and unpredictable candidates and rowdy live audiences, the televised debates were compared with reality TV and a 'WrestleMania' match (Collins, 2011; Stelter, 2011). Whether such characterisations are 'fair' is less significant than the fact that cable news networks invoke such comparisons at all. In short, the 'new' news can now be compared with other competitive offerings on cable television, for branded political entertainment offers little in the way of what we might still conceive of as 'news'. Upon further consideration, that just might be the biggest news of all.
Thanks to David Craig and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions.
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(1) O'Reilly accounts for 10 per cent of Fox's profitability (Peters, 2010). Furthermore, prime time is when Fox News 'earns most of its advertising revenue' (Sherman, 2011). Anderson Cooper was intentionally promoted as central to CNN's brand, with the network spending up to $20 million in promotional activities to make him so (Sherman, 2010).
(2) Similarly, NBC Universal announced it was creating a new division called NBC Universal News Group that would house its broadcast and cable news outlets, yet appointed as chairman an executive whose primary leadership is in the entertainment side of the industry. See www.deadline.com/2012/07/pat-fili-krushel-to-oversee-nbcuniversal- news-group.
(3) For a misreading of this data, see Baum (2011).
(4) For news executives, that is, for such observations have been pointed out before by symbolic interactionists such as Murray Edelman (1988).
(5) See Thelen (1996) for an insightful analysis of how images of public life on television can threaten viewers' core values and beliefs and spur them to political action.
Jeffrey P. Jones is Associate Professor and Director of the Institute of Humanities at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. He is the author of Entertaining Politics: Satiric Television and Political Engagement (2010) and co-editor of News Parody and Political Satire Across the Globe (2012).
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|Author:||Jones, Jeffrey P.|
|Publication:||Media International Australia incorporating Culture and Policy|
|Date:||Aug 1, 2012|
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