Washington Press Club Foundation
Deborah Howell:
Interview #6 (pp. 63-73)
January 11, 1994 in Washington, D.C.
Donita Moorhus, Interviewer

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[Begin Tape 1, Side A]

Moorhus: You said, after reading the transcripts, that there were some things you thought were missing. Why don't you tell me what you'd like to add.

Howell: Well, my grandmother's name is Delorah—I was named after her. They changed the L to B—Delorah Williams.

Moorhus: Good.

Howell: The part, it seemed to me, was—it would seem like I had no children and, in fact, I have eight. They're all stepchildren, but I would say—of course I'm closer to some than others—but all eight are important to me and I talk to all eight frequently. I give all eight— [Tape interruption.]

I've got eight stepchildren and nine grandchildren, and I'm in touch with all of them frequently, and I mean not a week goes by that I don't talk to two or three of them—send them notes, communicate with a couple of them on the computer—and they're very important and real to me. I realize my professional life and my married life I had talked about, but I really had not talked about the children. So I'll just tick them off right quick.

The oldest is Nick J. Coleman—I'll just go through the Coleman children first—who is—I think I'm right about these ages—Nick Coleman is forty-two. I mentioned him in my narrative, and he is a columnist on the St. Paul paper who I hired away from Minneapolis Star. He's married and has three children: Josiah Finn Coleman, Hannah Clare Coleman, and James Wilton Coleman who are represented in pictures around here and who are great kids. James was the first grandchild in the family.

The second child is Patrick Kevin Coleman and he is forty, forty-one. He is acquisitions director at the Minnesota Historical Society and a book collector and an outdoorsman. Nick and I learned great outdoors skills from Pat. He's the best outdoorsman in the family and quite a canoer, hiker, and great guy to be with. He was the first of the Coleman kids to accept me. He met his wife Cheryl when she was a nurse for Nick at the hospital. She was one of his leukemia nurses—a really wonderful person. He has two children from a former marriage, granddaughters, Natalie and Deirdre.

Third child is Brendan Coleman, who just got married to Beverly. Brendan is a musician and he is thirty-six years old. There was another Coleman child between Pat and Brendan who died very early of leukemia of the same kind that killed Nick.

Moorhus: Oh, really.

Howell: They also have a grandmother on their mother's side who died of acute leukemia so they have acute leukemia on both sides of their family. They lost a grandmother, a father, and a sib to it. Felt really awful.

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Brendan is kind of the "hang-loose" kid who didn't want a real career but is very committed to his music. All the Coleman kids are great outdoors people so I've done a lot of backpacking, canoeing, camping, with all of them.

The next kid is Mickie—Meghan Coleman. She just had my ninth grandchild. She is a chiropractor in Mankato, who is married to Charlie Hurd, who is a junior high librarian in St. Peter, Minnesota. I was just down to have a viewing of my new grandson, Peter Coleman Hurd, who is darling. Mickie and I have been on many backpacking trips together. She and I backpacked solo twice in the Tetons—the Amazon women. She and I have been out hiking, not just backpacking, but day hiking in the Tetons more times than we can count. This past summer she came out over Labor Day, which is when I'm always out there, and she and Peter [Magrath] and I went canoeing—when she was five months pregnant—on Jackson Lake and saw a bear and had a great time.

The next kid is Christopher Coleman. Christopher Brian Coleman is an attorney, a public defender in the Minneapolis office of the Hennepin County Public Defender's Office, who is running for county attorney in Ramsey County (St. Paul). He's going to be the politician of the family, he thinks. He's married to Connie and has a darling girl named Molly who is two years old. In fact I've got to call today to see how his announcement went yesterday of his candidacy. He is very much a chip off the old block. Also another great outdoorsman.

After Nick died, Mickie and Chris and I took a memorial backpacking trip to the Tetons. We backpacked the first trail that Nick and I ever backpacked, which was a heck of a hard trail but quite wonderful. I'll show you a picture. I've got a picture of Chris on his twenty-first birthday right behind the Grand Teton.

The youngest is Emmett [Coleman], and Emmett's twenty-seven. Emmett's about to get married in May to a woman from Texas. So we have a lot in common. She's also a graduate of the University of Texas as I am. They're getting married in Brenham, Texas. Her father's a professor at Texas A&M, and they both work on the Hill. Emmett is thinking about moving to Texas and going to the LBJ school at the University of Texas. He'd be the only kid ever to move outside of Minnesota. It would be very unusual. He and I didn't know each other too much growing up because he was only fourteen when his father died. Of course, there were kind of hard feelings left from the divorce. He just didn't really see me until he was older and more on his own. He and I have become quite good friends here and talk every week—well, every couple of days, really. So I'm really looking forward to him being married, but I'm not looking forward to him leaving Washington. I'll really miss him.

My two new stepchildren with Peter [Magrath]—the oldest is Valerie, who is thirty-seven. She is a headhunter in the computer business. Her husband, Emmett, is a rock musician much like—same age, same kind of music even—as Brendan Coleman.

Then Mo is Peter's adopted daughter from his former marriage. She's really not blood kin to either of us but we feel like she is our daughter and we have sole financial responsibility for her. She is in college at NYU [New York University] and I'm in charge, kind of, of her clothes and upkeep, and Peter is in charge of her education. She's been a real addition to the family, really, because when she graduated from high school, she's been our responsibility ever since.

Moorhus: You said Mo. Is that short for—

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Howell: It's short for Monette—Monette Magrath. She wants to be an actress. She's quite a talented and creative young woman. She's a good writer, too, and we have lots of fun together.

Moorhus: Well, that's a wonderful array of children. They must keep you very busy.

Howell: It gets especially busy around Christmas because I buy presents for every goddamned one of them. More than one. I'm the Queen of Christmas. So it took seven or eight huge packages to get all the presents there for all the kids and the grandkids—the Coleman kids. I had five Christmases this year: one with Emmett and his Texas girlfriend here because they were going to Texas for Christmas; then up to New York to have Christmas with Mo in New York; then off to Minnesota to have Christmas with the other five kids and the grandkids; then off to Texas with my mother, my sister, and my brother; then back here to have a late Christmas with Valerie. [Laughter.] I buy Christmas presents all year long. I've already bought Christmas presents for next year.

Moorhus: Well, you have to get an early start when you have that many to buy.

Howell: Right.

Moorhus: How did you establish a good relationship with your stepchildren?

Howell: It was difficult because Nick's divorce was extremely painful and the children didn't like me and were resentful of me. I had to work very hard at becoming their friend. The outdoors had a lot to do with it. We did a lot of camping and backpacking and canoeing. Finally they decided I wasn't such a witch after all, I guess. I'm very much a part of their lives. I think it's because I worked hard at it.

The other two kids—Valerie was really grown by the time I met her, but I've known Mo since she was three years old. We didn't really start knowing each other until she was about fifteen or sixteen. It's been a special challenge to become friends with these kids. I often wonder—I guess I could not have, but I chose to have relationships with all of them. I think I have good relationships with all of them. I mean, they have their ups and downs, but they are 90 percent of the time better rather than worse. And I consider them my children even if they're not my blood children. I'm careful—try to be careful—never to step on their biological mothers' toes—any of their mothers. But on the other hand, I've had a lot to do with all of them as we brought up—I mean, I've known Emmett, who's about to get married, who's twenty-seven, about to be twenty-eight—I've known him since he was five years old. So they're really, for me, long-term commitments.

I don't know how I'm going to do with grandchildren because I'm far away and all my grandchildren are in Minnesota, but I really try to write them notes and remember them and send them things. The other day I got a computer message on my America OnLine from my six-year-old grandson Josie. I had sent him a dinosaur teeshirt and he really loved it, so his father helped him type out a message to me, which I thought was pretty cute. They call me Grandma Debbie. [Laughter.]

Moorhus: Grandma Debbie.

Howell: "Gramma Debbie." [Laughter.] Which kind of comes into "Gramma Debbie."

Moorhus: It all runs together.

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Howell: It all runs together. And Molly calls me "Dah-bee." I'll show you Molly when we get up—she's over there. I've got a cute picture of her over there.

Moorhus: So, hard work and time.

Howell: Yes. Hard work and time. Heal all wounds. It's one thing in my life—I have worked extremely hard in my relationships with these children, and they've taken a lot of work. It's mostly been rewarding.

Moorhus: It's clear you're very proud of them.

Howell: Oh, yes, I am.

Moorhus: Your office certainly has pictures of—it must be all of them—

Howell: Yes.

Moorhus: —at various stages of life.

Howell: Yes. Various stages of life. I'm very proud of them.

Moorhus: Do the Coleman children have anything to do with the Magrath children?

Howell: Now, Emmett, because he lives here, and Chris, because he's been in a lot, have both met Mo. They know Mo, and Emmett knows Valerie, too, so a little bit, but not a lot. The only place where they were all together, except for Mo, who didn't come to our wedding, was at our wedding.

Moorhus: There really isn't much occasion, and distance certainly would make that difficult.

Howell: Right. Mo knows them by—Valerie knows them all because she met them all—but Mo knows them all—when I talk about them, she knows who I'm talking about. She's met—she just met two of them. She just met Emmett and Chris.

Moorhus: She is the youngest.

Howell: Right. She is nineteen. They go from nineteen to forty-two. Actually, I think Nick is forty-three and Pat is forty-one. And I first met Nick when he was twenty-one. So I've known everybody for twenty years. I've known Mo for thirteen, though I haven't had a close relationship with her until she became a teenager and her father and I got together, of course. But I knew her when her mother was married to Peter. I try to always—my secretary knows there are a few people who can always get right through to me and my stepchildren can always get right through to me.

Moorhus: And I'm sure they know that, too. They know that they have that kind of access to you.

Howell: Right. Yes. They know they have and they know I'll be there. When Mickie was waiting for her baby to come and it was late, I talked to her every day. If something bad has happened to one of the kids, I'll be there. And I'm close to Nick's brother and sister, too, and we hold a Christmas party every year at my old house—835 Osceola, which I've sold to Nick's brother.

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I wanted to keep it in the family. It was an important house to me. I lived there sixteen years. So we have the Christmas party where we've always held the Christmas party for nineteen years.

Moorhus: So you go back to Minnesota at Christmastime—

Howell: I go back two or three times a year. I go back for summer. We have a big summer party we have every year—for the kids. Then I go back at Christmas and then I'm usually back at least one or two other times to see them. All of the kids have been out here except for—well, four of the six of Nick's kids have been out here to visit. Two haven't been out yet, but they'll come.

I had the whole family—Nick and his wife and three kids for a week doing "the family does Washington." You know, hauling them around everyplace and had Chris and his wife and baby—I babysat while they went to the inaugural ball.

Moorhus: I expect that leaving them was one of—

Howell: It was terrible.

Moorhus: —the difficulties for you.

Howell: Leaving Minnesota, as I think I said, was just terrible. I sat down on the floor of my empty house, with all the furniture taken out of it, and cried. Because I had spent twenty-five years there. I'd married there, I'd buried there, I'd married again, I had all these kids and now grandkids. I was really wedded to that place. It was extremely hard to leave it.

Moorhus: And yet you said professionally—

Howell: It was the only thing I could do. It was the only thing I could do. I had to leave behind those kids if I was going to progress professionally. The situation was such at the St. Paul paper [St. Paul Pioneer Press Dispatch]—I just couldn't stay. Because I couldn't do what they wanted me to do. I couldn't cut up what I had built. So I did the right thing. But it was very hard.

So I go back a lot. I see my friends and I see my family.

Moorhus: Tell me about the satisfactions, as well as the frustrations, that you have had here with Newhouse in Washington.

Howell: Washington is a very funny place in that it can be very phony. It's very built-up power and ego, and I'm not much into power and ego. So running a Washington bureau the way many of the Washington bureaus are run is just something I'm not very good at. I wanted to run a bureau more based on issues than power and ego and politics. And so I have, and I think I've been moderately successful. I also think that I will never, probably, be a success in the way that the New York Times or the Washington Post people will be successful, because I don't have the power or the access. And that's okay. I'll do something different.

But Washington is a very small town. I'm still not quite comfortable in it.

Moorhus: And it's a real insider-outsider town.

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Howell: Right. I am an outsider. I don't know whether I want to be an insider. I've been very ambivalent about that.

Moorhus: Do you have insiders here at the bureau?

Howell: A couple who, I think, would like to be insiders. But most of them are outsiders—and that's fine with me.

Moorhus: So that's something that you—

Howell: I did. I hired many of them deliberately to bring in a fresh view of what we were doing. I hired them from newspapers in from places that were kind of more real-world than Washington.

Moorhus: One of the satisfactions that you had in St. Paul was having been affiliated with, having won the Pulitzer Prize.

Howell: Yes. Two of them.

Moorhus: Two of them.

Howell: And five finalists. But who's counting? [Laughter.]

Moorhus: Is that something you'd like to do again?

Howell: Oh, sure. There's no journalist in America who wouldn't like to win a Pulitzer or another Pulitzer. I'd love to. Is that possible? I don't know. It's a crap shoot. Winning a Pulitzer is a real crap shoot. Of course I'd love to. I'd love to bring that kind of glory to the bureau. And we have certainly had people here—very talented. It's perfectly possible to win a Pulitzer here. Probable? I don't know. Those things depend on getting the right story at the right time in the right place.

Moorhus: Is it a function of being an insider or would it be helpful if one were an insider?

Howell: It is in some places—it is in some categories of the Pulitzer—but, no. I'd say that that's a minor part. But you have to be highly talented, have a wonderful story to tell, and do it beautifully. And having all those stars come together in the right kind of conjunction is difficult. But, yes, I'd love to. I hope to.

Moorhus: What other ambitions do you have for the bureau?

Howell: I would really like to do trend-setting social issue coverage in the areas I have chosen—like religion, race, violence, gender, aging. Those are the issues I really, really care about. I care about politics, and we have a wonderful military reporter I'm very fond of. But I think that the real reporting is ground-breaking reporting in the issue areas because it's very difficult in this town to best the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post. So I think you need to cut a broad swath in another area, and I've chosen social issues.

Moorhus: Religion is not an issue that's very widely covered or very well covered.

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Howell: No. And I think I could cover it—I've got a wonderful religion editor here [Joan Connell], and I would like to expand our religion coverage. I'd like to do that. I think it would be—I think we could do a good job of it.*

Moorhus: What do you see as the issues in religion to be covered?

Howell: We really cover religion, ethics, and morality. So it's a much broader beat. It's "what's good, what's right, what's wrong" as well as the value system of this country, the value system of the world, which in—most values are based on religious belief or on value systems that are highly influenced by religious belief. I'm fascinated by that. [Tape interruption.]

Moorhus: I'm wondering if you are taking this interest in religion, morality, and ethics and applying it to stories that might not be covered that way. For example, the story of the radiation testing that was done.* There is a whole political dimension to that, of course, and there is a scientific dimension—

Howell: I would have done the morality side of that if I hadn't been sending my morality reporter off to Israel to do a story on how human beings and agencies and groups and churches and synagogues are trying to come to grips with peace in the Middle East. She has gone over there to do a series of stories on that or I would have had her do a morality of radiation story.

Moorhus: But is that part of what you mean about applying that to issues that might—

Howell: Yes. Sure. It's applying the standards, the values and ethics and morality to public policy is a big part of her beat. Why do people lie in public policy? There were the hearings on the CIA director, when Robert Gates was trying to become the CIA director, and there were a number of people saying he was lying. He was saying they were lying. We did a story about everybody saying everybody else was lying—a Washington phenomenon—when nobody seems to be telling the truth.

So we do stories like that. We did a story on—we did some stuff out of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings that were based on ethical and moral principles. We've done a lot of stories like gay priests—how the Catholic Church is so screwed up on sexual matters. So we've done a lot of controversial reporting, too, in that area. Some stuff that some of our papers wouldn't run.

Moorhus: Oh, really?

* In January 1994, Newhouse News Service announced its purchase of Religious News Service, a sixty-year-old religious news wire service which provides stories and photos to 270 clients, religious and secular, five days a week. Deborah Howell, who proposed the purchase, says, "Religious News Service has a sterling reputation for independence and integrity in reporting, and we plan to continue that tradition and enhance it. The historic mission of RNS has been to serve the religious press, and we have every intention of continuing that mission." RNS headquarters will move from New York City to Washington, D.C. [Ed.]
*In January 1993, Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary announced that the federal government had supported research experiments on individuals, often without their consent, from the 1950s into the 1970s. The story was widely reported and breaking as this interview was conducted.

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Howell: Because they thought it was too—they thought they'd get the Catholic Church mad at them.

Moorhus: What about covering some of the non-traditional, in American terms, religions? Islam—

Howell: We do coverage of Islam, we've done coverage of Zen-Buddhists, Hindus—Joan Connell, our religion reporter, is very big into Eastern religions because she came to us from California where it is bigger than it is here. So we've done quite a bit of that. When she left San Jose, the Muslims gave her a dinner. She knows Islam. She's been very valuable. I think she's the best in the country.

Moorhus: It certainly seems like there is the potential for a Pulitzer Prize series out of that kind of coverage.

Howell: I think there is—that and race. Those are the two things, I think, that I have Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters on the staff.

Moorhus: How are you approaching issues of race?

Howell: We just do stories that are kind of different. The last one we did is on blacks collecting racist memorabilia. The biggest market, the biggest buyers of racist memorabilia—original memorabilia—are black people. Now, why is that, you might ask. It's a good story.

We're doing a story right now on Indian Jews. There are a number of Jews who have become interested in Indian things.

Moorhus: You mean India India?

Howell: No. American Indian.

Moorhus: American Indian?

Howell: Quite a bit of intermarriage and it's just an interesting story. Hey, I wouldn't have thought of it. The race reporter tracked it down. We've done quite a few stories on what really is race. If you're half black and half Indian or half Hispanic and half—what are you? We did a very good story—when whites are in the minority and how they feel when they are the minority. Whites living in black neighborhoods, whites going to black colleges—there's quite a bit of stuff like that out there. We just have concentrated more on those stories than the usual.

Moorhus: When you decide to concentrate on this kind of an area, in both cases you've identified one person. At what point do you expand and hire a second person to cover that area?

Howell: We've been talking a lot about that. Part of it is money. The Newhouse family has been very generous with this bureau and letting me change it, but we're supported by the papers and, you know, there is only so much money you can ask them to pay for the bureau. It's always a question of—I could build an empire as quick as the next person, but I also know the value of a buck. [Tape interruption.]

Howell: —multicultural things. In fact, I don't have enough racial diversity in the office. There was none when I got here. There were no minorities at all.

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Moorhus: Really?

Howell: No. There was only one woman reporter on the national staff. Now it's about half and half. I have a black reporter, black editor, black photo director, black graphic artist, a Mexican-American reporter. I lost my Asian reporter, and the next opening I hope to get back an Asian reporter. I've got a Peruvian intern. I'll get there. Every opening I try to add a minority to the staff—preferably a minority woman because I'm still low on women.

Moorhus: One of the women I'm interviewing is Dorothy Gilliam, and when I asked her about the question of ethics in journalism, she said "diversity." To her, diversity is an ethical issue.

Howell: Oh, I think it is, too. I agree with her. I know Dorothy, I agree with her. I think an all-white bureau—and it was when I came here in 1990—is practically unethical. It's not easy to do—to build a multicultural, diverse bureau—but it's important.

Moorhus: It's not just hiring, it's also retaining. And it's integrating in the sense of developing a group of people that are comfortable and able to work together productively.

Howell: Right. My staff works together very well—I have very little tension on my staff.

Moorhus: How have you worked to make that work?

Howell: I couldn't tell you. There was a lot of tension when I—not a lot, but there was some racial tension when I first hired three black people—boom, boom, boom. I think everybody thought they were affirmative action hires. They were and they weren't. I mean, I looked for good people, found them, and— [Tape interruption.]

Howell: I had somebody I will not name here who was a very nice guy, very conservative, did work on the inner city with poor kids, but he was racist. He was just racist. He was always saying things that would just send black people on the staff around the bend. And I finally had to talk to him, just tell him—

Moorhus: That he was being racist. Did he recognize that when you confronted him?

Howell: No.

Moorhus: No. He denied it. [Tape interruption.]

Howell: Some people say incredibly racist things and it's just hard. You have to work at it. I mean, this happened in St. Paul. I have seen racism all my life. I grew up in Texas. I had a Mexican boyfriend one time, and my father slapped me across the room about it when I was twenty-one years old. I walked out, didn't come back for about a year and a half. It's just something that's very important to me—I've fought it all my life. It's one of the hallmarks, to me, of my entire life.

Moorhus: I can certainly see you teaching by example and responding one on one when you hear something. I was wondering if you had sensitivity sessions or—

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Howell: No.

Moorhus: —anything that is sort of one of these au courant

Howell: Not here. I've thought about it. But the place is so small that it hasn't seemed necessary. I would if I had a problem big enough that I didn't think I could tackle.

Moorhus: So you really tackled it one on one, then.

Howell: Yes. Which I think is always the best way to tackle it.

Moorhus: Have you had the staff come to you with personal examples of other staff behaving in racist or sexist ways?

Howell: Oh, yeah. For years—I mean, this happens. Sometimes it's important, sometimes it's not. Sometimes it's somebody who has taken something the wrong way when it wasn't meant, sometimes it's somebody really just being a little too friendly when they might not ought to be. Sometimes it's serious. I have on tape the whole story about Steve Isaacs and him calling me a "dumb cunt," don't I?

Moorhus: Yes.

Howell: I think I do. Geez. That's the most serious example I've ever had of that kind of name-calling.

Moorhus: Personally.

Howell: Personally, or out in the office. This is a pretty informal office. I'll go out there and call somebody a jerk if I think they're being a jerk. [Laughter.] I'm pretty straightforward, always have been, if somebody's acting out. If somebody tackles me in public, I'll tackle them in public. Otherwise I'm pretty careful about doing it behind closed doors. I probably get by with stuff that a white male boss couldn't get by with.

Moorhus: What kinds of things?

Howell: Oh, putting my arm around somebody, calling someone an "asshole." It may have been in jest, but if I was a male, I wouldn't be calling a female employee an "asshole." And I may call one of the guys and say, "Aw, don't be an asshole." They're not going to do anything, it doesn't bother them. If it does, I think there's somebody who'd say something to me. It's all an informality, but the rules of the office are much more formal now than they were when I was growing up in the newspaper business.

Moorhus: Much more formal?

Howell: Oh, yes. Between men and women.

Moorhus: Oh.

Howell: Much more formal. Between men and women and between racial groups.

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Moorhus: You said, before we started today, that there were some things you wanted to be sure got on the record about your experience here in Washington, in terms of covering that. What kind of things did you have in mind? [Pause.] You said there were two topics that you hadn't adequately covered before—your stepchildren and your experiences here in Washington with the bureau.

Howell: Oh. I think I've hit what I wanted to hit.

Moorhus: I am really quite interested in the focus you've taken here and the themes that you're emphasizing and I think it's very interesting in terms of how to make a mark, how to carve out a niche for Newhouse.

Howell: Well, I'm hoping it works. It has taken me a long time to get here, and we've still got a lot of work to do. I could not declare it a success. I only know that if I had done it the way everybody else did it in Washington, I do not necessarily think we would have been a success.

Moorhus: Are you moving to other office space in March because you need more space?

Howell: Yes. And our lease is up. We're paying too much money here. We're going to pay nine dollars less a square foot there.

Moorhus: Wow. So you'll have more space for less money.

Howell: In a nicer neighborhood.

Moorhus: And that will give you an opportunity to expand.

Howell: Right. I've got beaucoup expansion room so we're real pleased. I've got a new set of computers. We've done a lot of stuff to upgrade. We've upgraded everything here since I got here. Really done a lot of upgrading.

Moorhus: Good. Thank you very much.

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