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White House Correspondents’ Dinner: Trevor Noah headlines after event’s 2-year hiatus

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White House Correspondents’ Dinner: Trevor Noah headlines after event’s 2-year hiatus

Biden — and service workers — have a ‘decent chance’ of being exposed to Covid

In a column for MSNBC Daily published Friday, Dr. Esther Choo warned that President Biden has a “decent chance” of being in the same room at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner with a Covid-infected person. But it’s not just high-profile Washingtonians who are at risk — it’s service workers, too.

Choo wrote:

“Universal mask wearing, preferably of N95s, KN95s or KF94s, would provide an additional layer of national security, protecting our president from a real threat (at a time when our vice president has tested positive for Covid). It could allow Biden to more fully participate in the activities rather than asking him, the primary roastee in attendance, to perform acrobatics to accommodate the rest of the crowd. It would indicate concrete support for workers’ rights.”

Trevor Noah also mentioned the risks in his monologue. But with the dinner ended and attendees scattered into the night to continue the party, all we can do now is wait and see (and test!) Stay safe out there, nerds. 

Trevor Noah won’t get arrested for his Biden jokes. And that’s beautiful.

I expected “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah to be good tonight. But I didn’t expect to laugh as much as I did at his set, despite clearly being part of his target audience. (My favorite gag of the night? His riff on The Slap, featuring Kellyanne Conway.)

Before taking the stage, President Biden informed Noah that unlike in Moscow, he was free to make fun of the president without getting arrested. It’s a point that Noah separately made in his bit — after several digs at the president, that is.

Some highlights: Noah’s speculating that he was chosen because Biden gets his “highest approval ratings” when “a biracial African guy is standing next to” him; his assurance that things are “looking up” under Biden — “gas is up, rent is up, food is up;” and that Russian President Vladimir Putin calmed down after Biden called for his removal because “none of the stuff Biden wants actually gets done.”

It’s a privilege Noah clearly doesn’t take for granted, his ability to stand on stage next to the leader of a country and mock him with no consequences. And the comedian implored the journalists sitting in the Washington Hilton’s ballroom to do the same; to really take advantage of the freedom that the media is given in the U.S. to question authority and speak truth — even when it makes people uncomfortable.

WHCD celebs said they knew the Covid risks — but the show must go on

Dr. Anthony Fauci opted to skip the WHCD this year due to Covid concerns — but he seemed to be one of very few people in D.C. this weekend concerned about the pandemic. Despite constant reminders of the pandemic’s shadow — and mentions in both President Biden’s and Trevor Noah’s remarks — there were barely any masks spotted on the red carpet.

“Young Sheldon” star Iain Armitage was something of an anomaly, sporting double KN95 masks due to immunocompromised family members. “I trust that they are doing an amazing job and everyone is vaccinated and tested,” Armitage told NBC News. “It never hurts to have a little extra protection … With the COVID stuff, I am the original germaphobe.”

“I think we’ve reached a point where we realize it’s gonna be with us,” said comedian Lesley Jordan. “And we can’t stop. The world can’t stop. I like the fact that it’s on each of us. If you feel better wearing a mask, then wear a mask.”

The “Nanny” was also leaving her chances to protocols and fate.

“I take very good care of my body, I honor my immune system to support my body,” said actress Fran Drescher. “I know that everybody here passed the antigen test and is vaccinated, so I guess that’s as good as we can hope for and the rest is up to the Gods.”

And comedian Billy Eichner seemed to channel the sentiments of many at the party when he said that while the pandemic is still definitely underway, it’s time to live life again.

“I’ll get a booster every day if that’s what it takes,” he said. “I love being boosted. But you gotta get back to life. These are our lives. Life is short. And so you have to be cautious, you have to be safe — do the best you can to keep everyone safe. But I’m happy to be back. You can’t be stuck in your house forever.” 

First came the ‘Klete’ jokes. Then, ‘Manchinema.’

The WHCD is a fairly liberal (and incestuous) D.C. affair. Thus it was very fitting that Trevor Noah made sure to point out one of the biggest hurdles facing Democrats this year: other Democrats. 

Noah joked, for example, that he was nervous being in such close proximity to the most important decision-maker in the country: West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. (That got a chuckle out of President Biden.) The Democratic senator from Arizona, Kyrsten Sinema, and her signature stonewalling weren’t left unscathed either. “Who ever thought we’d see the day when a senator could be openly bisexual but a closeted Republican,” Noah said in an unsubtle nod to Sinema’s unsubtle obstruction of progressive reforms like the Voting Rights bill. While Noah was tough on Biden, he seemed to take equal if not more pleasure going after his defectors.

That Roger Ailes-Sean Hannity joke was straight-up brutal

My colleague Liz Plank already shared some of the shots Trevor Noah took at Fox News tonight, but he saved some of his most cutting Fox-related remarks for primetime host Sean Hannity and the network’s former CEO and founder, the late Roger Ailes. 

“Fun fact: Sean Hannity and Ainsley Earhardt are actually dating now,” Noah said, referencing an alleged relationship between the two Fox News personalities. “I actually think it’s beautiful to see an office romance at Fox that won’t end in a $20 million settlement.” That was a reference to the payment former Fox host Gretchen Carlson reportedly received after she sued Ailes over harassment claims. 

“I’m sure wherever Roger Ailes is right now, he’s looking up and smiling,” Noah said.

With no Trump, it’s easier to scrutinize the media (and that’s a good thing)

This year’s dinner felt markedly different than it did during the Trump era because the comedians and participants had more room to talk about where the media has failed than where the president has failed. Biden doesn’t manufacture multiple crises a day the way President Trump did, so Trevor Noah rolled through all of the standard criticisms — that Biden’s very very old, that we have too much inflation, that he coasted off Obama, etc. — and then had to turn to the other people in the room for material. 

I generally think press criticism is healthy, and making fun of an outlet for pulling punches or being too cozy with the people it covers is a kind of accountability. The WHCD specifically is a little too insider-y for most people to get or care about. But the people in the room do get it — and being told they’re lazy or corrupted or willing to pull punches or too cozy with their sources in front of hundreds of their peers isn’t exactly fun. 

Also: Noah was funny. As Hayes already pointed out, some of the night’s earlier material seemed to be journalists writing jokes (which is very bad and should never happen — journalists are not funny) instead of the comedians writing jokes. Noah’s stuff was actually good.

Trevor Noah (finally) takes the stage

And now, for what (so many) were waiting for. “My name is Trevor Noah, and I am really honored to be here,” began “The Daily Show” host, before launching into a rollicking monologue that poked fun at the president, the press, Congress, Covid-19 and members of the Biden White House. 

It’s good to be back, baby!

President Biden: You — the free press — matter more than you ever did in the last century

Okay, I see you, Joe!

Okay, I see you, Joe. President Biden worked himself into a nice rhythm during his stand-up set. I particularly appreciated his dig at House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. 

”I’m not really here to roast the GOP. That’s not my style,” Biden noted. “Besides: there’s nothing I can say about the GOP that Kevin McCarthy hasn’t already put on tape.” Pretty good jab there over recently unearthed audio in which the Republican leader is heard criticizing some of the more extremist lawmakers in the GOP.

Biden drags Fox News

Some of President Biden’s most effective jokes jabbed at Fox News reporters for well… not encouraging their viewers to get the jab. “They’re all here, vaccinated and boosted. All of them,” he said to roaring applause. The camera panned to a few of the several Fox News reporters in the room. Did any of them find it funny? I’ll report back after tonight’s parties.

Journalists think we’re funnier than actual comedians and wow is that incorrect

So far tonight, we are zero for two on the gag videos that have been screened at the dinner. The first featured the (soon-to-be-former) “Late Late Show” host James Corden trying to get a job at the White House and being sent out as press secretary. I can only assume that the White House reporters sitting in the Brady Press Room for this bit had either been bullied into taking part or promised that the tape would never actually see the light of day.

Then we had Billy Eichner, in a bit of inspired product placement for his upcoming movie, present a salute to entertainment reporters. It was…fine? The joke, I think, was that entertainment journalists are bad at being real journalists and don’t really have the same challenges as Serious Political Reporters. Really spicy stuff, this.

Do I know exactly who to blame for this? No — but I have a hunch. See, journalists (myself included) tend to think that we are far, far funnier than we actually are. And I’d bet that member of the WHCA, not Eichner or Corden, wrote those bits. This demonstration of the Dunning-Kruger effect would be apparent in most cases, but it really shows at an event like the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where the jokes from everyone but the headliner tend to be about as entertaining as you’d expect from C-SPAN.

Recognizing the earnest young’uns among us

So here’s one of the few good things about the WHCD: It recognizes good student journalists and brings a handful of them to the dinner. I teach in the journalism school at NYU and student journalists do a lot of important work that gets picked up by major outlets (sometimes with no credit). Recognizing the real work they do is one of the better things the correspondents’ association does. It’s so nice to see the next generation of journalists being recognized and encouraged, especially in an environment that’s increasingly hostile to journalists. 

Gayle King makes ‘Klete’ WHCD official

CBS icon Gayle King praised President Joe Biden for his handling of the Covid-19 testing at the WHCD, but her speech will likely be remembered more for giving us a definitive celebrity name for attendees Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson.

After asking her teleprompter operator to pause so that she could riff, King confidently referred to them as “Kete.” Entertainment Tonight seems to have first coined the term on April 26, but for (perhaps) obvious reasons it did not stick. Until now. 

A truly diverse crowd

Let’s keep it all the way real: Seeing the worlds of politics, activism and entertainment cross streams in this setting is pretty interesting, weird — and probably the best part of this entire event. Some of my favorite encounters and sightings? “Saturday Night Live” star Pete Davidson linked up with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. I can’t begin to imagine what they discussed. 

Also, rapper Fat Joe was spotted chopping it up with Georgia Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson and civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump. Capitol Police Sgt. Harry Dunn, who testified before Congress about his harrowing experience fending off rioters at the Capitol, is in there vibing, too. As is Fran Drescher of “The Nanny” fame!

Sheryl Lee Ralph: Stop trying to tell us that journalism is bad

Sheryl Lee Ralph, one of the breakout stars of ABC’s feel-good hit “Abbott Elementary,” had this to say tonight about the importance of the press: 

“I’m very happy we have this event coming back because around the world, journalists, certain media outlets have been vilified. It’s got to stop. There are so many people who have trained, worked hard to deliver the news… Stop trying to tell us that journalism is bad. When that happens, something deeper is going on in the country and that must be stopped. And things must change. Tonight is all about good journalists, good journalism, great media and the work that they do, and I’m here to be in their company and applaud them.”

Welcome to Coachella for nerds

Coachella was back with a post(ish)-pandemic bang this year and so is the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Two very different events, for sure. But they also share more than you might think. 

Both were making splashy returns from an hiatus (though a mercurial president was only involved in postponing one of them). Both (yes, both!) tend to be magnets for celebrities and influencers. I mean, Hollywood’s new it couple Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson even showed up this year. 

Both events even have headliners! Iconic musical guests like Patti Page, Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra have performed at the dinner (though female musicians were banned from the event until 1962). Then there’s the outfits. While I didn’t spot any flower crowns on the red carpet, there were some spectacular looks. (No word yet if anyone pulled up to the dinner in normcore.)

And just like Coachella this year, while the official WCHD guest list is never revealed until the last minute, everyone hopes Covid-19 doesn’t show up. A negative Covid test has been required for all attendees at the dinner in an effort to contain the spread. Given that the music festival people reported developing a very scary thing called the “Coachella cough,” perhaps organizers in Washington, D.C. are trying to prevent a “nerd prom flu.” Biden, we’re looking at you.

Never forget — the WHCD that (maybe) gave us President Donald Trump

There may have been no more history-changing White House Correspondents’ Dinner than the one held in 2011. President Barack Obama was in rare form that night, as he absolutely eviscerated a guest of the Washington Post: Donald Trump.

Trump had been floating the idea of running for president — again — but nobody thought there was a chance he’d actually do it, let alone win. Either way, part of Trump’s renewed push for political relevancy involved spreading the birtherism conspiracy theory, and Obama had had enough. Here’s how McKay Coppins, who wrote in 2016 about Trump’s revenge-driven march to the GOP nomination, described Obama’s decision to go after Trump — and the billionaire’s reaction:

“President Obama didn’t set out to humiliate Trump that night — at least not at first. His initial preference was to ignore the Donald, said former White House speechwriter Jon Favreau. “Like everyone else, the president didn’t take him super seriously back then. He sort of thought, ‘This is another silly thing I have to deal with in a parade of silly things.’” But after weeks of watching the news media ignore pressing political issues in favor of a walking WorldNetDaily article, Obama was grumpy — and eager for payback. As Favreau put it, “I think the circus-like quality of the situation we were in sort of egged the president on.”

The longer the night went on, the more conspicuous Trump’s glower became. He didn’t offer a self-deprecating chuckle, or wave warmly at the cameras, or smile with the practiced good humor of the aristocrats and A-listers who know they must never allow themselves to appear threatened by a joke at their expense. Instead, Trump just sat there, stone-faced, stunned, simmering — Carrie at the prom covered in pig’s blood.”

While it may be a bit of an exaggeration to say that the night of humiliation gave Trump the push he needed to actually run for president after numerous false starts… I think it definitely helped.

Sophia Bush: It’s about time the most powerful man in the world showed up to honor the press

“Listen, the president is the people’s president, the people’s leader. The press is the people’s information source,” said actress Sophia Bush (no, not those Bushes) from the WHCD red carpet:

“And when we begin to attack and denigrate what the press does, what you all do  — when we begin to act as though being at an event like this, and heralding the work of journalists around the world doesn’t matter — democracy hangs in the balance because democracy only exists with the truth. So I think it’s about time the most powerful man in the world showed up to honor the press. And you know, maybe it’s because we have a president who likes democracy again, that we’re here.”

Tonight’s dinner feels like people coming back to school from summer break

There’s an excitement tonight that I just have not felt in the past two White House Correspondents’ Dinners that I have attended. It’s like people coming back to school from summer break — but two years later. There’s just a truly palpable joy in the room. People want to talk to each other and catch up. Plus, they want to laugh. 

The story behind ‘Nerd Prom’ is a perfect 2009 time capsule

Some of us (and perhaps also you, dear reader), came of age at a time when the White House Correspondents’ Dinner was one of the social events of the year in Washington. As a recent college grad living in the city, I was of the many people enamored with “Nerd Prom” and all of the events surrounding it.

But I realized this year that I had no idea where the nickname came from. It turns out that up until 2009, the phrase was used mostly to refer to San Diego Comic-Con. This was during the early days of the Obama administration and the rapid rise of Twitter among D.C.’s wonk class.

According to my tireless research, I’ve tracked the popularization of “Nerd Prom” to Ana Marie Cox, a legend among the blogging masses, who used it in a conversation with journalist Patrick Gavin and Christina Bellantoni. From her, it spread to Chris Cillizza, then at the Washington Post, and then the world via the hashtag #nerdprom. By the day after the 2009 dinner, NBC News’ Chris Jansing declared in her report that “inside the beltway, it’s known as the nerd prom,” as though it had been called that for decades.

By 2010, the nickname was indeed everywhere, spawning backlash by those who argued the number of celebrities attending made the name moot! Between the Trump administration’s disdain for journalists and the pandemic, the event’s luster had definitely dimmed from its heyday — but now, for better or worse, the prom is back, as one of MSNBC’s Twitter followers excitedly declared:

I’ll be honest — I mostly loathe the White House Correspondents’ Dinner

I’ll be honest; I mostly loathe the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. I think many people think journalists and politicians are too cozy, and it doesn’t do much to assuage the conspiracy theories when you see them all in a room together, partying down. In 2011, the year Osama bin Laden was killed, the political press was mostly at the dinner when it happened, so the people who ended up breaking the news were… Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and Donald Rumsfeld staffer Keith Urbahn. 

I was the editor-in-chief of the New York Observer that year and as a matter of policy, I wouldn’t let our reporters attend. But I did let them report on the parties and craziness around it. That year they reported it as the bin Laden operation was happening, and this was the resulting story: https://observer.com/2011/05/the-situation-and-the-story-press-corps-parties-while-white-house-makes-history/ 

It felt like the people who should have been covering it missed it because they were at the dinner.

But that said, I am glad to see that we are back to a place where we don’t have a thin-skinned president who can’t tolerate the kind of skewering the chief executive always gets. Is that normalcy? Kind of?

Why it matters that (most) U.S. presidents can take a joke

Tonight marks the first time in several years that an American president will attend the White House Correspondents’ Dinner — and it’s a more significant event than many may think. In other nations, comedians can’t joke about their leader. I should know — I performed stand-up comedy across the Middle East. And one of the main rules is no jokes about the king, sheik, president, or whatever title the leader goes by. 

But this has not been true in the United States, where presidents for decades have attended this conclave of journalists, knowing that they would be the target of comedic barbs. 

Donald Trump — who famously was comically destroyed at the 2011 WHCD by both President Obama and NBC’s Seth Meyers — refused to attend the event while in office. What does this tell us? It seems Trump has more in common with kings and dictators than American presidents; like so many of them, he prefers to be feared — not laughed at. 

The night is young, but some people have already scored

We already know a number of the award recipients who are being honored at tonight’s event. 

In the “Overall Excellent in White House Coverage” category, Jonathan Swan of Axios won for his coverage of the Trump White House. (Remember back in 2020, when Trump responded to a question about Covid deaths saying “it is what it is”? Swan conducted that interview). 

In the “Excellent in Presidential Coverage Under Deadline Pressure” category for broadcast, ABC News’ Jonathan Karl won for his coverage of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. And in the “Excellent in Presidential Coverage Under Deadline Pressure” category for print, Associated Press reporters Zeke Miller and Mike Balsamo won for their 2021 report on the CDC easing up on its mask-wearing guidance.

Count on the WHCD to really play the hits

Shoutout to the Marine Corps band, which is the main musical guest for tonight’s dinner. As diners began to feast, the band played the “Armed Forces Medley,” which is about as rocking a good time as it sounds. It has to be one of the perks of the putting on this shindig that you know that you can always book a band that’s up for playing the finest hits of John Philip Sousa.

How the WHCA is taking steps to make Black history an indelible part of the event

Trevor Noah’s stand-up routine — not to mention the celebrity appearances — are going to get the most attention tonight. But don’t forget: They give out awards at this thing, too! Notably, this is the first year the White House Correspondents’ Association will be giving out lifetime achievement awards. The new Dunnigan-Payne Prize is named after the first two Black women to serve in the White House press corps. Alice Dunnigan became the first Black woman to get her White House press credentials in 1947, and was followed soon after by Ethel Payne. (And Dunnigan and Payne are the award’s inaugural winners.)

Dunnigan reported for the Associated Negro Press; Payne reported for the Chicago Defender, a Black newspaper. Both were often marginalized by White House officials who feared their pointed questions about racial inequality. 

Big moments from White House Correspondents’ Dinners past

The annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner has experienced its share of highs and lows over the years, from poignant speeches to cringeworthy jokes, eyebrow-raising outfits and more. Here are just a few of the most noteworthy (recent) moments:

First woman to headline 

In 1992, comedian Paula Poundstone became the first woman to headline the event. Four other women have had the honor since then: Elayne Boosler, Wanda Sykes, Cecily Strong and Michelle Wolf.

The event “did not feel like a normal gig to me,” Poundstone told Elle in 2015. “There was a real kind of fairytale quality to a lot of it.”

Obama taunts Trump 

In 2011, then-President Barack Obama famously skewered Donald Trump, star of “Celebrity Apprentice” and a central figure in the birtherism movement — a racist conspiracy theory that falsely claimed Obama wasn’t born in the United States.

“Now, I know that he’s taken some flak lately, but no one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than The Donald,” Obama said. “And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter — like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?”

Many political experts believe the mockery inspired Trump’s presidential aspirations, though Trump denies that’s the case. “I had the greatest time,” he told Fox News in 2016. He’s also never met a negative story he couldn’t spin.

Obama’s mic drop moment

Obama’s final White House Correspondents’ Dinner as president produced a memeworthy moment still beloved by Boomers to this day. (Or is my mom the only who keeps using this GIF in texts?!)

“I want to close my final White House correspondents’ dinner by just saying thank you,” Obama told the crowd. “I’m very proud of what you’ve done. It has been an honor and a privilege to work side by side with you to strengthen our democracy.”

“With that I just have two more words to say: Obama out,” he concluded before literally dropping his microphone, setting the internet ablaze.

Wolf’s polarizing set

Wolf’s performance caused a frenzy among political and media figures who argued over whether her pointed jokes aimed at then-White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders were inappropriate.

“I actually really like Sarah,” Wolf said. “I think she’s very resourceful. Like, she burns facts, and then she uses the ash to create a perfect smoky eye. Like, maybe she’s born with it; maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies.”

Angry senior Trump administration officials boycotted the event in 2019. They may or may not have been missed.

Trevor Noah is the first comedian to headline since Michelle Wolf in 2018

Trevor Noah, host of “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central, is the first comedian to headline the event since Michelle Wolf in 2018

Wolf’s set was polarizing, with some finding her jabs at then-White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders too cutting — and others defending the performance. Nonetheless, the WHCA chose historian Ron Chernow as its featured speaker in 2019. That was a different vibe. The group apparently hoped to avoid another controversial entertainment program and deliver instead what Chernow described as “a 20-minute sedative.”

Hopefully, Trevor Noah won’t be putting attendees to sleep. It will certainly be a friendly audience. Steven Portnoy, CBS News Radio’s White House correspondent and WHCA president, called Noah “an incredible talent who keeps us laughing — and thinking — four nights a week.”

Noah is expected to take the stage after dinner around 9: 30 p.m. ET.

President Biden and first lady Jill Biden mark a return to presidential tradition

President Biden and first lady Jill Biden will attend tonight’s event, continuing a decades-old tradition temporarily paused by President Donald Trump when he skipped the dinner during his presidency.

The WHCA announced the Bidens’ planned attendance as reports swirled of a Covid outbreak at the Gridiron Club dinner days earlier. The Bidens did not attend that dinner, though several members of the president’s cabinet — and dozens of other attendees — tested positive after the event.

The White House said President Biden will take extra precautions at the event, including skipping the dinner portion and potentially opting to wear a mask when not speaking. He will be the first president to give a speech at the event since Barack Obama in 2016

Covid concerns linger as WHCD returns after 2-year pandemic break

The White House Correspondents’ Dinner has returned after a two-year hiatus due to the Covid pandemic, but fears over transmission linger — and for good reason.

Just weeks earlier, dozens of people who attended the Gridiron Club dinner — an annual roast of Washington politicians and media figures — tested positive for Covid. It was a perfectly American superspreader event, Ja’han Jones wrote for The ReidOut Blog earlier this month.

The roughly 2,600 WHCD attendees will reportedly have to present their vaccination history and a same-day negative Covid test to be allowed inside the dinner.

But Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, caused confusion this week when he declared the U.S. has moved beyond the Covid “pandemic phase.” A day later, he said he was planning to skip the White House Correspondents’ Dinner after making personal assessment about his own Covid risk.

White House Correspondents’ Dinner 101: A brief history

The White House Correspondents’ Dinner — beloved by some, loathed by others — is an annual gathering of journalists and politicos hosted by the White House Correspondents’ Association. The group, formed in 1914 in response to President Woodrow Wilson’s antagonistic relationship with the media, held its first dinner on May 7, 1921.

The first president to attend the event was President Calvin Coolidge in 1924. President Donald Trump was the first president to skip the dinner in 36 years when he opted not to attend in 2017. He didn’t show up in 2018 or 2019 either; his ears must have been ringing, though. 

And the dinner was canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the Covid pandemic.

Many Washington insiders affectionately refer to the dinner as “Nerd Prom” — though the nickname has been criticized by some for being a bit too self-congratulatory

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