Transcript:

Speaker My name is Nicole Hannah Jones, and I'm a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine.

Speaker How did you get into journalism initially?

Speaker I can't really remember a time where I didn't read newspapers or look at newspapers, my father was an avid reader and he always subscribed to newspapers. We always got our local paper and our state paper. And we used to read the newspaper together. I used to be a kids section. And so I've always really been interested in the news. I started subscribing to Time magazine as a middle school student. It's just always been something that fascinated me.

Speaker And I think I got my first letter to the editor published when I was in middle school. I read a column.

Speaker She was a syndicated columnist and she wrote something that I thought was racist. And I wrote a letter to the newspaper complaining about what she wrote and they actually published it. And I never forgot how empowering that felt that I could complain about coverage and actually see my name in print. So I kind of thought about journalism as a career then. And then when I went to high school, I was bused as part of a voluntary school desegregation program from second grade all the way through high school.

Speaker And I took a black studies course. And one day as a 10th grader, I came in and complained to that teacher that our high school newspaper never wrote about kids like me, which were the black kids in the school who were bused from the other side of town and faced a lot of discrimination. And he told me, as great black educators will do. He was very honest. And he said, either join the newspaper and write those stories yourself or shut up and don't come here and complain about it anymore. So I did. I signed up to be on my high school newspaper. I tried out to be a columnist and wrote a sample column and they accepted it. And so I had a column called From the African Perspective, and I started writing about kids like me and really saw for the first time so many of my classmates reading our newspaper because they were seeing their experiences reflected in the newspaper. I won my first journalism award as a high school student from Iowa High School Press Association, and that's when I really started to think about journalism as a career.

Speaker In fact, I did not feel a little bit of the way just.

Speaker I'm going to try to wipe it with this mask, or I could go in the bathroom. Oh, I see it right here. I think it's gonna yeah. All right. I think it came from that way. I have other ways, too, OK, or I could be I could use those ones that you guys got once there. Yeah. And actually, I don't mind a little bit in your cheeks. In the middle of my forehead as well. Yeah.

Speaker It's incredible to hear your voice calling for your husband in person.

Speaker OK. Yes. OK, thank you.

Speaker OK, and what was your journey from from winning this award in high school to today? Super briefly, where what papers have you worked for?

Speaker OK, I didn't actually major in journalism in college. I went to University of Notre Dame and they didn't have a journalism program at that time. So I studied my other love, which is history. I was a history and African-American studies major. And then I went to graduate school at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I got my master's in journalism there. And then I had a very typical newspaper career. I started at a small bi weekly newspaper, worked my way to a larger daily newspaper. The Raleigh News and Observer spent almost three years there. Then I went to Portland, Oregon, worked there almost six years, people that used to be considered a writer's paper.

Speaker If you wanted to do narrative journalism, that was a place you went to hone that craft. And I certainly did there. And then I left there and went to ProPublica in New York City, where I worked as an investigative reporter for three years before the Times recruited me to come there.

Speaker And you get your beat at the Times is. Civil rights and racial justice issues has always been the focus of your reporting, is that the lens that.

Speaker Right. Yes, so the only reason I ever wanted to be a journalist was to write about race and racial inequality. That's what inspired me as a child. That's what made me want to do this as a career. So I've had lots of beats. I've covered education, I've covered government. I've been an enterprise reporter. But every beat I ever had, I always was writing about black Americans and racial injustice. So if I couldn't be doing this type of reporting, I wouldn't have wanted to be a journalist.

Speaker And has that been a struggle to. To have their voice heard, has it been a challenge?

Speaker There have definitely been times in my career where my career has been sidetracked, where I haven't been able to do the type of work that I wanted to do because I wanted to focus specifically on racial inequality. I had editors who felt that a black reporter who wants to buy. I had editors who considered a black reporter who wanted to write about race is pigeonholing yourself. I was told that I was not objective, but that there was a bias in wanting to write these stories about racial inequality. And actually, right before I moved to New York City to take the job at ProPublica, I was having a bit of a crisis. I was having such a hard time writing the stories that I wanted to write and actually getting in trouble for pitching stories about black people and racial injustice that I had considered leaving journalism. And the only reason that I'm still a journalist now, because I honestly couldn't think of anything else I wanted to do with my life, so I just stuck it out. So there's like so not The New York Times, I get to do exactly the work that I want to do. And when Dean Baquet, who of course, is the first black editor of The New York Times, recruited me, we talked about that. And I was very clear that if I couldn't do the type of journalism I wanted to do, I didn't need to work at The New York Times. It was much more important to me not to have a certain name or institution on my resume. What I wanted to do was the work that I thought was important. And to his credit, he said, right, then you will get to do the work that you want to do. And there's never been anything that I've pitched or any type of journalism that I've wanted to do that I haven't been able to do there and actually gotten tremendous resources to do so. I've been very lucky in that way.

Speaker To tell me about some of your reporting and specifically the 16 19 project and what you feel it has.

Speaker I've spent much of my career really trying to lay out and make plain the architecture of racial inequality, I've long been frustrated that so much reporting on racial inequality is about showing the racist of the week, someone who says something racist but really ignores the much more critical way that racism works in our society, which is the structural inequality that it creates. So I always see my work is trying to show that the inequalities that we see today aren't happenstance, not accidental. There's a history and there are real people right now who make decisions that maintain that inequality. So I've done that with housing segregation. I've done that with school segregation and a 16 19 project, which I created last year to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first Africans being sold into the British North American colonies that will become the United States was in some ways an accumulation of my life's work. It was an effort to show that you can look across modern American life and virtually nothing has been left untouched by the legacy of slavery, even though we've treated that as marginal to the American story. It's actually, in fact, central. And so the project was taking over an entire issue of the magazine to essays about everything from politics, music, incarceration, health care and, of course, democracy, to argue that black Americans and slavery are the foundation upon which our country was built. And how was it received to do the competition, hoped it would gather the 60 19 project accomplished more than I hoped it would. So much of my work is about the most challenging and embedded parts of our society, and so I I never really expect much change to come from the work that I do. I just feel my job is to expose it so that we can't pretend that we don't make the decisions that to uphold inequality. But when the 60 19 project went into the world, it exploded like nothing I've ever worked on in my life. It sold out all over the country. It's sold out of multiple print runs. We hadn't sold that many copies of a print edition in The New York Times since 2008, when Barack Obama was the historic election of the first black president. And people were posting videos of I went to five stores and I finally got a copy of it. People framed it on their walls. They wanted to give it as gifts and hold it for their children. I've just never seen anything like that. And of course, the inverse of that is I've also never seen the type of backlash to anything that I've ever worked on that I've received to the 60 19 project for a period of time. Nearly every day there was a, you know, conservative politicians or right wing publications writing articles trying to discredit the project and and also trying to discredit me. So in some ways, that was the greatest honor, because I think it really spoke to the tremendous cultural and political impact that a project like this can have.

Speaker And even as we're looking at the protests all across the country, I've been struck by how often the year 16, 19 is invoked. I can't say that that's all because of the 16 19 project, but I certainly think the 16 19 project has played a role in pushing that date and that 400 year legacy into the national consciousness. On some of the monuments that have been brought down. You see people spray painting 16 19 on there. You see protesters making that direct connection between the killings of black Americans and the four hundred year legacy of slavery. And that's been tremendously gratifying to me, is that to know that I helped usher something into the world that gave people a lexicon to really understand why we are where we are.

Speaker And the project is continuing. Right, you have a number of spin offs working on you.

Speaker Yes. So the 60 19 project is already offered as a high school curriculum. The Pulitzer Center turned it into a curriculum. It's available free at their website. We know what's being taught in all 50 states by at least some educators. Chicago, Buffalo, some about five other school districts have made it mandatory curriculum already. We are also turning the 60 19 project into a series of books that will range from children's books all the way up to adult books. And one bigger part of the project, which seems particularly pertinent in this moment, is we decided to try to mark a slave auction sites all across this country. And so we have a group of researchers that we're working with and to really force a reckoning of all of the places that have kind of faded in to the landscape, much like slavery has faded into the landscape where human beings were bought and sold. So as we're kind of having this national reckoning about monuments to white supremacist monuments to Confederate. This is we didn't know that this is going to happen when we started this project. But this is an intentional, I guess, way of balancing that American narrative. So we're also working on that.

Speaker An amazing. You were also honored by the Pew Research Center with a Pulitzer Prize. Tell me about that.

Speaker For the project, right? Yes, well, placenta's is separate from the public. Yeah, that's OK. Your voice isn't on there anyway.

Speaker So how do you want me to answer that in a complete sentence?

Speaker Like to say I was honored to be recognized people. OK, so you've won many prizes that I mean, that's that's that's the One Stooges.

Speaker And then, you know, this year I was extremely surprised when I earned the Pulitzer Prize for my opening essay for the 60 19 project, which is on how black Americans are the perfect of democracy. I think any journalist would be lying if they don't say they don't admit that when they decide to become a journalist, they dream that one day perhaps they'll make something worthy of earning the highest prize in journalism and to have received it for this project in particular, it's almost impossible to express what that felt like. But on top of that, I received it at the same time as I had to be. Welles, who was a black investigative reporter who I have called my spiritual godmother, received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for her work on entitlement, saying I couldn't have designed a more cosmic moment. And it was pretty amazing.

Speaker That's a good segue into your creation of the idea. Mm hmm.

Speaker Tell me about that and what you hope to accomplish in 2015. I was at an investigative reporters conference and I was in the lobby with another black investigative reporter, friend of mine. And we spotted two other black journalists there, which I think tells you about the racial makeup of this conference. So we all came together, introduced ourselves, and we're sitting in that lobby and we started talking about how we come to this conference every year. And we accounted for maybe, you know, ninety nine percent of the black people at that conference and how we were really kind of fed up with the excuses. So we at that moment decided that we were going to found an organization that was going to try to help train and create more opportunities for black journalists to become investigative reporters. Each of us had struggled to get the support and mentorship to become investigative reporters. Investigative reporting, of course, is the most critical of reporting because this is the type of reporting that holds power accountable that days and uncover things that powerful people don't want to be known. And yet the field is extremely white and extremely male. So that's how we came up with the idea to form this organization. And as we were considering what we should call this new organization, we were going to create, it just almost naturally came to mind that we should name it after Ida B Wells. And there were a couple of reasons for that. One, Ida B Wells was an innovator of investigative reporting. She was actually one of this nation's earliest investigative reporters, but she was also a black woman. And there were so few models in the world of black women, investigative reporters, all of us who were trained as journalism. We could list the names of white male investigative reporters that you're taught about, but you're never taught about black women. And so we felt that naming the organization after all these wells would help to send the message that there was actually a long legacy of black journalists, men and women who were doing this type of reporting, and that this was nothing new. And we wanted to sound the place, our organization and efforts into that legacy.

Speaker So what does the organization do in I can give you the.

Speaker What is its mission and side of the well, society is a training and mentorship organization, so we provide free or very low cost training in the skills of investigative reporting. We're open to anyone, but our focus is on training journalists of color and giving them the specific skills and opportunities to go out and do investigative reporting. And it's also an organization that tries to demystify investigative reporting because investigative reporting is just reporting. But it it's often you have more time. The projects tend to be bigger, but the skills transfer across beats. So we were really hoping that if we because the founders are all black investigative reporters, we understood the specific obstacles that black journalists face to getting the type of training and resources in order to do the type of reporting. And so we work very hard to provide that. We've trained hundreds of journalists all over. We have a student chapter at Howard University, which is a historically black college in D.C. and we're continuing to try to provide the type of resources to really move the needle on the face of investigative reporting and who gets to do the type of reporting that holds power accountable, which, of course, is a long tradition amongst black journalists.

Speaker That's my next question. Tell me about what you know about that long tradition in the history of specifically print black owned newspapers in the US and the role of the black press.

Speaker So the very first black newspaper, Black owned and founded newspaper, of course, is the Freedom Journal, which was founded in 1827 by Samuel Cornish and John Rothbaum. And their motto I've Always Taken to heart, which is We wish to plead our own excuse me, their motto I've always taken to heart, which is we wish to plead our own cause to long of other spoken for us. And I think that that sums up the reason almost every black journalist I know has become a journalist even today, which is this understanding that the press controls the narrative. And if we are not presenting our own communities, if we are not telling our own stories, then other people will shape the way that our stories get told, what doesn't get told and how the larger world sees us. So the need to start the Freedom's Journal really demonstrates the role the black press has always had to play, which is to take black people from being invisible, to take black Americans from not having our stories told and turning that lens towards our experience. And necessarily the black press has always had to be an activist press. So this idea of objectivity, which actually is a fairly recent idea, even in mainstream press, black Americans were existing in a country. So if we go back to 1827, more than 90 percent of black people in America at that time were enslaved. We existed in a country where we had no rights of citizenship, where the majestic ideas of our founding did not apply to us, where literally most people were of our people existing in chattel slavery. And so the role of the black press had to be to try to change that circumstance, not just to report that slavery existed, but it existed. The black press try to move this country to end the institutional slavery. So because of that, the black press has always played a unique role in having to expose the country for what it is to try to expose the way the country has treated black Americans and to try to push the country through our reporting to be more democratic and more free.

Speaker So you know a lot about how to be wills. Yes, I'd be happy to tell you a little bit about, but it's very sparse since you didn't watch the film.

Speaker But now I mean, I know about her as well, but go ahead. Oh, good.

Speaker Great. So how so? She she became the owner of a newspaper, The California Eagle, which she turned into the most popular paper on the West Coast and of the largest circulation in night, and she became owner in 1912. How rare do you think it would be for a woman, a black woman, to own a newspaper in the early.

Speaker So I've always found her to be a fascinating figure as well, so this is a woman who was born a decade after the end of slavery in South Carolina. We know what black life was like. There were not opportunities for people right out of slavery and moved out west like so many Americans of not just black Americans, but large numbers of white Americans hoping to find freedom and find her way. It would have been fairly rare, though not entirely rare, for a black woman at that time to own a newspaper out of Wells also owned newspaper at that time. So I think we had this period of black people coming into their freedom and really doing. Amazing things that that we would imagine would be hard for us to do today, but I think when you had no freedom whatsoever and find yourself emancipated, there's almost nothing anyone can tell you that you can't accomplish. And that's certainly what she did. She started out selling newspaper subscriptions and worked her way up to becoming editor and ended up buying the newspaper at auction and used her platform in the way that black journalists, in particular black women journalists, have always done, which is she was she was an intersectional before we had that term. So she wasn't just using her newspaper in the West to fight for black Americans rights, but was also fighting for Asian Americans, for Mexican Americans, labor housing really all across the spectrum. She was a woman that I have a great deal of admiration for.

Speaker What kinds of obstacles do you think she, she and other women of color would have faced in the field of journalism a century?

Speaker The obstacles that she faced were the obstacles that black women have always faced, which is not only was she facing race discrimination, but she was also facing gender discrimination. So it was hard for her to be taken seriously. She's written out of history much the way that Ida Be Wells was written out of history, not only because she was black, but because even in when we talk about great black newspaper people, we don't often mention black women. And so she faced kind of that dual discrimination that black women have always suffered. And I think that's what has made black women so intersectional from the beginning, is that there was never one front on which they were trying to fight the war for equality. They were always having to fight on multiple fronts. So it's not it's the least surprising thing that most people do not know her name.

Speaker So later in her career, she actually ran for office. State, local, state, and then it was the first African-American woman. To be a vice presidential candidate in the 1950s on the Progressive Party ticket, why do you reflect on that and why why have we never heard a lot about us as the first woman vice presidential candidate?

Speaker So when we think about someone like Charlotte Abbas to again be born a decade out of slavery and then have the moxie to run for national office in a country that 10 years before enslaved black people and black people didn't even have political rights. And of course, she's also running at a time when black women are just getting the actually, I shouldn't say tenuta, for she didn't run when she was born. We're running running to be vice president of a country that her parents that running to be vice president of a country that had enslaved her parents and running at a time when black women or when women in general were just getting the right to vote, speaks to what kind of woman she was out of a sense of righteousness and justice, in that it didn't matter how the world saw her. She knew the potential that she had and she was going to step into that, even if it seemed an impossibility. Unfortunately, she was clearly far, far ahead of her time, because to this day, we've never had a woman vice president or a black woman vice president. But it speaks to, I think, really this sense of promise and mission that so many black Americans felt coming out of slavery that unfortunately was was not proven right. And when I think about why we don't know this or talk about it, I think it's more that most people have never heard of her. I don't even know that it's that she's intentionally omitted from the stories.

Speaker When we talk about black or when we talk about women's suffrage or when we talk about women's firsts in this country, she's really been erased from the narrative and the national memory in general and.

Speaker That's deeply sad when we consider the life that this woman led and also how these stories of of women doing this at that time and particularly black women are so deeply empowering if if we're taught them. Charlotte, Charlotte Abad's was a woman so far ahead of her time, she to this day is.

Speaker What did I say? I don't remember how I said it, I said, uh.

Speaker We still never we still never OK?

Speaker That over time in running for president, right? You still have no OK.

Speaker Charlotte Abbas was so far ahead of her time in seeking and running for vice presidency of this nation, so far ahead of our time, obviously, because we still haven't ever had a woman vice president and certainly not a black woman vice president.

Speaker She was also renovated for being an activist later in her career. Do you can you relate to that? Have you yourself experienced? Like you mentioned earlier, that sometimes editors would say you weren't there, but there was a. A lack of objectivity or something, and in the very reporting that we wanted to do is that. Level of an activist.

Speaker Something that you've had to consider, I think most black journalists who write for the mainstream press and choose to write about racial inequality at some point and often multiple points in their career are accused of wanting to be activists and not journalists, accused of being unable to be objective. And I don't really argue with that because I think all journalism is activism. When you go into The New York Times, it's understood that our job is to hold power accountable. That's not a neutral position. So in the way that journalism is activism, certainly black journalists are activists, but no more so than any other journalist, no matter their race. What is often been the case is because we we treat white as neutral. The sense is that if white Americans are writing about race, they're writing about it from an objective, neutral position. I categorically reject that. It's not possible for any of us to be objective. And again, we come from a tradition of black journalists where how is one objective about whether black people should be lynched? How is one objective about whether black children should be in segregated schools? How is one objective about the fact that black people were denied the right to vote black who have never desired as journalists to be objective in those ways, and white Americans, because they have been in a country that has worked to their benefit, can pretend to be objective when they're reporting, but they're clearly not. So that accusation is a very old accusation and I reject it. And most black journalists I know rejected our job as journalists is to be accurate and to be fair and try to get as close to the truth or the truth as we can, but not to pretend that we don't have feelings. Our experiences don't impact the way that we cover and see the world. Of course they do.

Speaker Would you say that journalism as a field is more, you know, a more level playing field and that there are more entry points for African-American women?

Speaker Journalism is certainly as a field is more level than it would have been during Kalighat or excuse me, during a lot of Bass's days. Yes, I mean, black women couldn't get a job at a mainstream newspaper period. And that would have been true all the way until in many places the 1970s. So that part is different. But if we look at the statistics, black people and particularly black women are still vastly underrepresented in mainstream newsrooms. And the higher you go up the hierarchy of management in newsrooms, we become almost non-existent. We still face the challenge of gaining a foothold in this field and certainly rising to its most prominent positions that that is not change whatsoever.

Speaker And that's part of the impetus for having created to be a society.

Speaker Absolutely. I know there aren't many black women journalists in positions like I have, and I think it is very important to understand that that's not because I'm the only one with this talent. There are a lot of extremely talented black journalists, black women journalists who just never get the opportunities. They don't get the support, they don't get the training. And so many of the black women journalists who started their careers at the same time as I did are not in journalism anymore. And I think that that is a travesty. You know, we have these moments like we're going in in this country right now with the protests over George Floyds death when NEWSROOM suddenly understand that having black reporters is an asset and then these protests die down and then they forget the assets that we are. But we're an asset to covering this country all the time. And that is why I helped co-found Edible Society for Investigative Reporting to at least try to do away with that one excuse that we hear all the time, which is we'd love to hire more black investigative reporters. We just can't find any who are qualified. That's never been true. But it becomes even harder to say that when I can say, actually, I know these people are qualified because we have trained them ourselves.

Speaker How would you describe the legacy of Charlotta Bass and how do you think her life history resonates still today?

Speaker I would describe her legacy as every black woman reporter who is out here trying to fearlessly do the work that we're called to do, even when it hurts our careers, even when it causes us to draw scorn and ridicule. But we're determined to do it because these truths and stories must be told. I think that as her ongoing legacy, whatever I face as a journalist today is nothing compared to the hardship, the lack of resources, the lack of support that she faced and other black women journalists of our era face. So I think it helps us all stand taller and know that we can weather whatever storms we have because we have a long legacy that was built upon that we're trying to build upon. So I think that that is the legacy and I'm just grateful that more people will know about it as well.

Speaker And you've sort of answered this, but I'll ask it anyway. What inspires you about her?

Speaker Do you feel like you're walking in her footsteps? In a way.

Speaker What most.

Speaker Inspires me about Charlotte Abbas is her fearlessness, her determination, it didn't matter that the government was watching her, it didn't matter that she was being accused of being a communist, didn't matter that she was a woman. She was going to do the journalism that she felt was critical for her to do. And that is a constant reminder to me that sometimes when it seems really hard that it's not and that we have she had such a sense of obligation not just to our own people, but to justice. And these were journalists who had such a moral core to their work. And I certainly feel like my work is embodied with a deep sense of morality and justice and not speaking for people because everyone has a voice. We just don't listen to all of those voices. So I wouldn't say I wouldn't deign to say that I'm walking in her footsteps, but I think she's certainly helped create a path for someone like myself to exist and understanding that history and respecting that legacy and paying homage to the black women who for which without them, Nicole Hannah Jones would not exist in this world, is is so critical to me.

Speaker This this project's name is unladylike. Mm hmm. What does that word means to you? Unladylike.

Speaker I think it is one of those words where we those of us who have been called on the like and I certainly have reclaim that and wear it as a badge, because to me, Unladylike is refusing to conform to society's ideas of how a woman should act and portray herself, what type of ambition or career she should have, how she dresses, how she looks, how she thinks. And I certainly look a certain way on purpose. I have long used both my outward image and my voice to push back on these notions that to be intelligent, to be successful, particularly as a black woman, you have to present a certain way. I, I see unladylike as being women who are confident to be themselves. And what the hell is a lady of sizes for kids?

Speaker That's how I feel. What you know, what is what is a lady?

Speaker What does that even mean? I'm a woman and I don't have to have a certain acceptable refinement about myself to be taken seriously and to do serious work in this world.

Speaker That's exactly. No, we have only a few minutes left. I'd like to bring it into the present day. OK, but with the recent murders of.

Speaker Some people say, and including you to an extent in the piece you just published yesterday, that the nation has finally reached a tipping point of sorts, maybe, maybe at least of of. Well, what people are waking up to their part in issues of racial justice.

Speaker What do you how do you see this moment and what does the future look like for you? Are you hopeful?

Speaker So I never, as a journalist and as a student of history, try to predict what what will come and what will happen. And in general, if you study history, you can't get too excited about moments like this and whether they will really lead to transformation as a type of transformation that we need. But this certainly feels different than anything else I've experienced in my lifetime. The sustained nature of the protest, how multigenerational and multiracial sorry, how multigenerational and multiracial the protests have been. Protests in 50 states, even in states that hardly have any black people in towns that hardly have any black people. So it feels like we are at a place that could be transformative, but that's going to largely be determined by how long white Americans are willing to pay attention and how far white Americans are really ready and willing to go.

Speaker And as I said, history doesn't bode well for that. But we'll see. I'm not a person. I think hope is useful for a lot of people. I don't find hopefulness to be a useful emotion because you'll just be disappointed.

Speaker So with my work as a journalist, I just see my role as exposing the society and it's up to activists and other people to try to bring about that transformation.

Nikole Hannah-Jones
Interview Date:
2020-07-07
Runtime:
0:41:03
Keywords:
None
American Archive of Public Broadcasting GUID:
N/A
MLA CITATIONS:
"Nikole Hannah-Jones, Unladylike2020: The Changemakers." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). 07 Jul. 2020, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/1037
APA CITATIONS:
(2020, July 07). Nikole Hannah-Jones, Unladylike2020: The Changemakers. [Video]. American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/1037
CHICAGO CITATIONS:
"Nikole Hannah-Jones, Unladylike2020: The Changemakers." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). July 07, 2020. Accessed January 23, 2022 https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/1037

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