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Q&A with R. G. Belsky, Author of It’s News to Me

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In R. G. Belsky’s fifth Clare Carlson Mystery, It’s News to Me, TV newswoman Clare Carlson investigates the murder of college student Rily Hunt, whose death might be more than just a simple murder case. John Valeri interviews R. G. Belsky, and the two discuss topics such as how the Clare Carlson books stand alone within the series, the ways in which fiction can be used to illuminate real-life social issues, and more. Read on for the full interview!

Award-winning author R. G. Belsky knows more than a thing or two about the worlds his fictional characters inhabit. A veteran journalist, he was a top editor at the New York Post, New York Daily News, Star Magazine, and NBC News before making the decision to write fiction full-time. Unsurprisingly, his vast experiences in the melee of New York City media add authenticity and color to his tales of dogged reporters who stop at nothing to get the story. Belsky’s 20th novel, It’s News to Me, is the fifth to feature intrepid Channel 10 News Director Clare Carlson, whose illustrious, headline-making history often finds her on the streets and in front of the camera despite the behind-the-scenes positioning her job title would suggest.

Belsky recently took time away from pen and paper to discuss his most recent work. Topics include: how the Clare Carlson books stand alone within the series; the reason(s) why Clare’s newest investigation gets under her skin; the ways in which fiction can be used to illuminate real-life social issues; the melding of fact and imagination in scene-setting; and the promise and perils of technology in reporting the news. He also offered a look ahead to what comes next. 

John Valeri: It’s News to Me is your fifth novel to feature Clare Carlson. In what ways do her personal and professional entanglements carry over despite each story standing alone? 

R. G. Belsky: There are three basic themes that carry over from book to book in the Clare Carlson series: Clare’s romantic life, her interactions with the people in her newsroom, and her unusual relationship with her daughter.

In It’s News to Me, I focus on the romantic and office entanglements in her life. (You can read more about Clare and her daughter in the other books.)

Clare meets a new man in this book, and she begins to imagine a real relationship with him. Could he be the one for her? Although she’s been divorced three times and had numerous failed relationships, Clare is still a romantic at heart. The relationship with the new man is something she pursues along with solving the crime in this book.

There’s also a big change for Clare in the offices of Channel 10 News, where she works as the news director and on-air personality. Her former boss and mentor has been pushed out, replaced by an ambitious, unpleasant woman TV executive who clashes repeatedly with Clare. I tried to make this woman as unlikeable as possible (giving her some of the traits of the worst editors I have worked with in my own journalistic career), and readers have told me how much they hated her. So I guess I succeeded!

Oh, and one more thing that carries over from book to book is Clare’s best friend, Janet, who gives her sane and sage advice when she needs it the most.

Valeri: Clare finds herself surprisingly invested in this book’s central crime, the beating death of college student Riley Hunt. In what ways does she relate to the victim, and how does this motivate her commitment to getting the full story despite being warned off of it?

R. G. Belsky: I think Clare is always invested in the crime—and especially the victim—of every story she covers. She’s motivated to get the complete story because that’s in her DNA as a journalist. But in this case, I guess she particularly relates to the dead college student Riley Hunt because Riley was only 20 and had so much unfulfilled potential. It’s difficult for Clare to accept that Riley lost her life in a random, meaningless crime of violence like the police say. And that motivates Clare to keep digging until she discovers long-buried secrets about Riley Hunt and her life.

Valeri: The man accused of the crime, Donnie Ray Bakely, is a war veteran who came home a different person than when he was deployed. As a veteran yourself, tell us how crafting characters such as his allows you to explore real-life issues that plague our veterans.

R. G. Belsky: Yes, I am a veteran myself (Vietnam), and this is a topic I care deeply about—which is why I wanted to write about it in this book. Donnie Ray Bakely, the man accused of Riley’s murder, has been written off as damaged goods by everyone except his mother and Clare. Clare meets him, talks with him, and sees him as a tragic figure that she is not convinced is the killer of Riley Hunt. Writing Donnie Ray Bakely’s story was especially meaningful for me because of my own background as a veteran and because dealing with returning war veterans is such an important issue in our society.

Valeri: You use New York City as a backdrop but meld real and fictional places (such as Easton College) for the purposes of story. What are the benefits of doing so, and how does setting underscore the book’s thematic elements?

R. G. Belsky: Writing about real places can create a lot of problems (depending on what you say about them)—and it’s a lot easier to use fictional settings instead.

In It’s News to Me, Easton College is totally fictional—even though people who know New York City will recognize its location in the Washington Square Park area being similar to the NYU campus.

The same with Channel 10 News. There is no Channel 10 News in New York City. But there are several local news shows just like it.

And I frequently use fiction to describe other locations—restaurants, hotels, businesses—instead of using the name of the real places in New York.

The benefit of doing that is you can say whatever you want about a fictional place—even if it’s bad stuff (murder corruption, etc.). Hard to do that when talking about a real location or business or person.

But I do still include a lot of real locations in New York—some of my favorite restaurants, neighborhoods, and other hangouts—to give the reader a feeling of the real New York City.

So, in many ways, I guess you could say Clare’s New York is my New York too.

Valeri: As a longtime journalist, how do you endeavor to keep up with the ever-changing machinations of media, and in what ways does technology influence the pacing, perks, and perils of Clare’s job?

R. G. Belsky: It’s tough—almost impossible—to keep up with the ever-changing technology going on these days in the media. Livestreams, Twitter, and all the other social media where people get their news have dramatically changed the way journalism works in recent times.

I try not to become too obsessed with this in the Clare books because I don’t want to slow them down by having them read like technical manuals. Also, technology is changing so fast that most of what I write about it would be outdated by the time the book came out. So I do refer in the Clare books to the changing times of the media—usually in general terms—but try not to go too deep down that rabbit hole.

Valeri: Leave us with a teaser: What comes next for Clare Carlson & Co.?

R. G. Belsky: Clare Carlson #6 will be out in January of 2024. It’s called Broadcast Blues—about the murder of a controversial former female police officer in New York City who had made a lot of enemies during her time on the force. Broadcast Blues includes sex scandals, police corruption, financial fraud, political intrigue, and a devastating new personal trauma for Clare. I put a lot of stuff in this one!

 


 

About It’s News to Me by R. G. Belsky:

Dashed dreams: she wanted to run for president one day—now she’s dead at 20.

When Riley Hunt—a beautiful, smart, popular student at Easton College in Manhattan—is brutally murdered, it becomes a big story for TV newswoman Clare Carlson.

After days of intense media coverage, a suspect is caught: a troubled Afghanistan war veteran with a history of violent and unstable behavior. The suspect’s mother, however, comes to Clare with new evidence that might prove her son’s innocence.

As Clare digs deeper into the puzzling case, she learns new information: Riley had complained about being stalked in the days before her murder, she was romantically involved with two different men—the son of a top police official and the son of a prominent underworld boss—and she had posted her picture on an escort service’s website offering paid dates with wealthy men.

Soon, Clare becomes convinced that Riley Hunt’s death is more than just a simple murder case—and that more lives, including her own, are now in danger until she uncovers the true story.




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Consumer Confidence Hits Four-Month Low Amid Persistent Inflation, Rising Interest Rates

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By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters)—U.S. consumer confidence slipped to a four-month low in November, with households less keen to spend on big-ticket items over the next six months amid high inflation and rising borrowing costs, heightening the risks of a recession next year.

But the survey from the Conference Board on Tuesday also showed consumers remained upbeat about the labor market, which could limit some of the anticipated economic downturn. The labor market has remained resilient despite the Federal Reserve’s stiff interest rate increases, helping to keep consumer spending and the overall economy afloat.

“The consumer is still bummed out about the economic outlook coming into the home stretch for the year, but the major worry hasn’t yet shifted from inflation with the rising prices of goods sitting on store shelves to the labor market or whether or not you can find or keep your job,” said Christopher Rupkey, chief economist at FWDBONDS in New York.

“That tectonic shift in consumer confidence from inflation worries to job concerns is coming though.”

The Conference Board’s consumer confidence index fell to 100.2, the lowest reading since July, from 102.2 in October. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the index would come in at 100.0. Still, the index remains above its COVID-19 pandemic lows. It places more emphasis on the labor market, which remains tight.

The decline in confidence was concentrated in the 55-and-over age group as well as among households with annual incomes below $50,000. There were notable decreases in confidence in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, which offset increases in Texas, New York state, Florida and Illinois.

Consumers’ 12-month inflation expectations increased to a four-month high of 7.2% from 6.9% in October, which the survey blamed on rising gasoline and food prices.

The Fed has raised its policy rate by 375 basis points this year from near zero to a 3.75%-4.00% range in what has become the fastest rate-hiking cycle since the 1980s.

The survey’s so-called labor market differential, derived from data on respondents’ views on whether jobs are plentiful or hard to get, rose to 32.8 from 31.8 in October. This measure correlates to the unemployment rate from the Labor Department.

Though it has dropped from 44.7 last November, it remains quite high by historical standards.

“The Fed’s strategy of attempting to reduce the availability of job openings relative to the supply of labor to put downward pressure on inflation does not appear to have made any progress in November based on this survey of households,” said Conrad DeQuadros, senior economic advisor at Brean Capital in New York.

INFLATION CONCERNS

With inflation continuing to dominate consumers’ concerns, fewer of them were interested in making big-ticket purchases over the next six months, the survey showed. The decline in buying intentions occurred across the board, flagging a slowdown in demand for goods and also bolstering expectations that recent signs of goods disinflation could become entrenched.

That also fits in with views that the economy could experience a sharp slowdown in growth or a mild recession in the first half of 2023.

Fewer consumers also planned to purchase a house over the next six months, according to the survey. Rising mortgage rates and high prices have significantly reduced affordability for many prospective buyers. Though house prices have came off the record highs reached during the COVID-19 pandemic-driven housing market boom, they remain significantly high.

A separate report on Tuesday showed the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller national home price index increased 10.6% on a year-on-year basis in September, slowing from August’s increase of 12.9%. Tight supply will, however, likely keep a floor under house prices.

“While buyers are stepping aside waiting for more affordable prices and rates, causing the slowdown on price growth, would-be sellers are sticking to their ground and holding tight to the inventory they currently own,” said Nicole Bachaud, senior economist at Zillow in Seattle.

“As a result, prices might not continue to plunge down as much as some projections anticipate, as the available inventory of homes on the market is constrained.”

A third report from the Federal Housing Finance Agency showed house prices increased 11.0% in the 12 months through September after advancing 12.0% in August.

 

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Paul Simao)




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Biden Official Makes History: The First Nonbinary Federal Official To Face Felony Theft Charges

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A top Biden administration official made history as the first nonbinary federal official to face felony charges after swiping a women’s suitcase from an airport.

Sam Brinton was charged last month with swiping a suitcase of women’s clothes from the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Airport in September, less than five months after assuming the post of deputy assistant secretary of the Office of Spent Fuel and Waste Disposition at the Department of Energy. The stolen Vera Bradley suitcase along with its contents were worth $2,325, according to a criminal complaint.

Brinton, who identifies as “genderfluid” and uses they/them pronouns, was charged with felony theft on Oct. 27 and faces up to five years in prison, Alpha News reported Monday. Prior to joining the Biden administration, Brinton was known for promoting sexual fetishes and tying his partners up like dogs. At the Energy Department, Brenton oversees the disposal of highly radioactive nuclear waste.

Video surveillance footage captured Brinton removing a woman’s luggage from the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Airport luggage carousel on Sept. 18 and swiftly concealing its bag tag in a handbag. The federal official did not check a bag when departing a Washington, D.C., airport earlier that day, the criminal complaint states. Brinton was later seen with the same Vera Bradley suitcase on Oct. 9 when arriving at Washington Dulles Airport on a return trip from Europe, according to the complaint.

Brinton concocted several conflicting stories when confronted by a Minnesota police officer on Oct. 9, the criminal complaint states. Brinton initially denied taking the suitcase when first contacted by the officer over the phone. The federal official then admitted to taking the suitcase, but said “my clothes” were in the bag.

Brinton changed stories again later that day, calling the officer back and apologizing for not being “completely honest.” The federal official then claimed to have accidentally taken the bag and left the clothes in a Minneapolis hotel room. Brinton claims to have kept the stolen luggage because it would have been “weirder” to leave a bag than the clothes, the criminal complaint states.

The officer then instructed Brinton to return the woman’s property to the airport. As of Oct. 27, when the criminal complaint was filed, Brinton had not returned the suitcase.

Brinton was placed on a leave of absence from the Department of Energy shortly after being charged with felony theft, according to Exchange Monitor. Brinton’s replacement, acting deputy assistant secretary for spent fuel Kim Petry, notified her colleagues on Nov. 18 that she would be leading the office “for the foreseeable future.”

“I should have another update for all of you in a month or so,” Petry said. The timeline matches with Brinton’s scheduled hearing in Minneapolis on Dec. 19.




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Iran, World Cup, China: Three protests test the White House

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Welcome to The Daily 202! Tell your friends to sign up here. On this day in 1963, just 10 days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon B. Johnson created a special commission led by Earl Warren to investigate the killing.

Iran, World Cup, China: Three protests test the White House

Iran. The World Cup. China. The White House is grappling with three very different kinds of protests in three very different settings that are testing President Biden’s commitment to make human rights “the center of our foreign policy.”

The administration seems to be taking three different approaches, widely varying in level of support for the demonstrators’ causes and retribution for the officials seeking to smother their message. Strongest: Iran. Much less forceful: China.

That’s not a criticism. It’s an assessment. The situation on the ground is vastly different: Iranian authorities have been beating and shooting demonstrators dead in the streets since September; the extent and duration of China’s crackdown isn’t clear, though there are credible reports of state violence against protesters and journalists, as well as heavy-handed censorship.

Over the weekend, thousands of Chinese took to the streets to protest leader Xi Jinping’s “zero-Covid” policies — three years of stringent lockdowns, mandated testing, lengthy quarantines, as well as censorship of dissent.

The depth and breadth of the demonstrations across many cities and university campuses immediately recalled the 1989 pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square that ended with the military massacring protesters in that historic Beijing landmark.

At the White House, officials expressed support on Monday for the protesters’ right to demonstrate — but kept their powder dry when asked whether the United States shares their goal of ending so-called “zero-Covid” policies.

 “People should be allowed the right to assemble and to peacefully protest policies or laws or dictates that they take issue with,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.

Asked for the U.S. reaction to some protesters calling for Xi to step down, Kirby replied: “The president is not going to speak for protesters around the world; they’re speaking for themselves.”

(A day earlier, Biden’s covid response coordinator, Ashish Jha, told ABC “lockdowns and zero-Covid is going to be very difficult to sustain” and it will be “very, very difficult” to contain the latest outbreak using that strategy.)

A Republican Senate aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be more candid, said imposing sanctions on Chinese officials cracking down on the protests — and any tech companies facilitating the process — should remain an option.

And Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said in a statement: “One way or another, in the coming months or in the coming years, the United States will hold accountable each and every CCP official responsible for atrocities against these protesters.”

So what about the World Cup being played in the Gulf monarchy of Qatar, which has faced scrutiny of alleged abuses of migrant workers and intolerance of LGBTQI+ identities?

Interestingly, the United States has directed some of its fiercest criticism not at the host country — whose officers have banned anything “rainbow” themed from stadiums because of that symbol’s connections to the LGBTQ+ community — but at FIFA, world soccer’s governing body.

After FIFA warned of drastic penalties against players wearing armbands supporting LGBTQ+ rights, Secretary of State Antony Blinken fired off: “No one on a football pitch should be forced to choose between supporting these values and playing for their team.”

At the same time, the White House kept its distance from the decision by U.S. Soccer to briefly post Iran’s flags without symbols associated with Iran’s religious leaders.

“USA Soccer is a private entity, and they make their own decisions about those kinds of things,” said Kirby.

And White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden was concerned about “the potential treatment of LGBTQ+ spectators and athletes.”

As The Daily 202 noted in early October, the Biden administration has made statements encouraging the protests sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in custody of the so-called Morality Police. She had supposedly failed to cover her hair properly.

“They’re willing to take the risk of getting out and demonstrating because they’re fed up with economic decay, with corruption, with the social restrictions, especially, that Iranian women face, and with political repression as well,” CIA Director William J. Burns told CBS.

It has also imposed sanctions on officials and entities seen as repressing the demonstrations.

And it has signaled support for steps to help the protesters circumvent the Islamic Republic’s efforts to smother Internet access.

Interestingly, when it comes to Iran, the Biden administration has gone further than the language it uses on China about the right to protest and specifically embraced the cause that triggered the demonstrations: ending repressive dress codes for women. And it did so early in the crisis.

“Women in Iran have the right to wear what they want; they have the right to be free from violence; they have the right to be free from harassment,” Blinken said in late September.

Compared to the language on China, that’s quite a demonstration of support.

See an important political story that doesn’t quite fit traditional politics coverage? Flag it for us here.

Senate poised to pass bill protecting same-sex marriage

“Today, the Senate is poised to pass legislation that seeks to protect same-sex marriages in the event that the Supreme Court overturns a landmark 2015 ruling that legalized them nationwide … Senate passage would send the bill to the House, where Democrats remain in the majority for the lame-duck session. President Biden has pledged to sign the legislation,” John Wagner and Mariana Alfaro report.

U.S. to announce help for Ukraine’s damaged energy infrastructure

The United States is expected to announce steps to help Ukraine withstand Russian attacks on its energy infrastructure, as top diplomats representing NATO’s 30 members and closest allies gather Tuesday in Romania,” Missy Ryan, Andrew Jeong and Leo Sands report.

Supreme Court to hear arguments over Biden immigration priorities

“The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Tuesday about the Biden administration’s immigration enforcement priorities, in a case that could bolster or curtail the power of states to challenge federal immigration policies,” Roll Call’s Suzanne Monyak reports.

China clamps down on ‘zero covid’ protests, loosens some pandemic measures

“In a possible sign that China may eventually relax its zero covid policy, which includes long lockdowns, regular mass testing and placing close contacts of coronavirus patients in centralized quarantine facilities, some local governments started loosening restrictions this week,” Lyric Li reports.

Lunchtime reads from The Post

Supreme Court suggests higher bar may be needed for corruption cases

The Supreme Court on Monday seemed likely to impose new restrictions on federal prosecutors battling public corruption, with the justices skeptical about the convictions of two men who profited in influence peddling during the administration of former New York governor Andrew M. Cuomo (D),” Robert Barnes reports.

Almost everyone expects a recession. Could the economy avoid one?

“Ever since the Fed started aggressively hiking interest rates in March, crucial pillars of the economy have stayed remarkably strong. The economy grew in the third quarter after shrinking in the first half of the year. Gas prices are ticking down. Companies are still eager to hire workers. And for many businesses and households planning for the future, a slowdown just doesn’t seem imminent,” Rachel Siegel reports

Top Democrat seeks financial data from Binance, Coinbase, other crypto firms

“A top Senate Democrat on Tuesday pressed Binance, Coinbase and other major cryptocurrency exchanges to explain how they would protect their customers in the event of a financial calamity, as Washington braces for further fallout from the collapse of FTX,” Tony Romm reports.

As Haiti unravels, U.S. officials push to send in an armed foreign force

“Fearing that the humanitarian crisis engulfing Haiti could spur mass migration to the United States and elsewhere, some top Biden administration officials are pushing to send a multinational armed force to the country, several current and former officials say, after the Haitian government made an appeal for such an intervention last month,” the New York Times’s Natalie Kitroeff reports.

But the United States doesn’t want its own troops included in that force, even though officials fear that the tumult in Haiti will send an even bigger wave of migrants to American shores.”

With no child tax credit and inflation on the rise, families are slipping back into poverty

“A year ago, the expanded child tax credit ended. Between 2020 and 2021, the credit — which gave monthly payments of up to $300 per child — helped reduce child poverty by more than 40 percent. More than 36 million families received the credit in 2021, and the money helped push the child poverty rate below that of adults for the first time,” Rebekah Barber writes for the 19th.

But since the program expired, child poverty rates have crept back up. U.S. households are having to pay between $300 to $400 more each month compared to last year because of inflation.”

Biden seizes on gun control despite hurdles in Congress

“Vexed by another string of mass shootings, President Biden has begun calling vociferously on Congress to pass a ban on assault weapons despite the extremely low odds that it will enact such a ban — a reflection of how he may seek to use Republicans as a foil now that a GOP takeover of the House is putting his legislative goals further out of reach,” Toluse Olorunnipa reports

As rail strike deadline nears, Biden calls on Congress to intervene

“The president said that while he was hesitant to push a deal that had been rejected by union members, acknowledging his promise to stand by unions, he also said a rail strike ‘would devastate our economy’ and ‘hurl this nation into a devastating rail freight shutdown,’” Lauren Kaori Gurley, Tyler Pager and Tony Romm report.

Harris and Macron to strengthen working relationship with NASA headquarters visit

“The NASA visit — which will include a working meeting and a briefing by US space officials — will highlight a deepening French-American partnership on space and the budding relationship between Harris and Macron, who developed a visibly chummy chemistry during Harris’s five-day trip to Paris last year,” CNN’s Jeremy Diamond reports.

Twitter follower shifts since Musk’s takeover, visualized

High-profile Republican members of Congress gained tens of thousands of Twitter followers in the first few weeks of Elon Musk’s reign over the social media network, while their Democratic counterparts experienced a decline, according to an analysis by The Washington Post,” Gerrit De Vynck, Jeremy B. Merrill and Luis Melgar report.

The continued survival of Louis DeJoy

“By retaining their Senate majority, Democrats no longer feel the urgency to use the lame-duck session to confirm executive branch appointments, pushing off decisions on who will fill key positions until at least next year,” the American Prospect’s David Dayen writes.

That means that the Biden administration will likely go through 2023—as they have through 2021 and 2022—with Louis DeJoy as postmaster general, given the current makeup of the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) Board of Governors, the body that decides whether to fire the PMG and choose a successor. Currently, the board supports DeJoy, and if the members whose terms expire in December are allowed to stay on the board an extra year, that support will continue.”

Walker to Trump: Please phone it in.

“A person close to the Walker campaign, speaking on the condition of anonymity about Georgia’s ‘complicated dynamic’ with Trump, said the campaign has not asked Trump to visit the state — and Trump hasn’t asked to come, either,” Politico’s Natalie Allison and Meridith McGraw report.

‘We’re just trying to not rock the boat with any and all sides,’ said the person close to Walker’s campaign. ‘We’re holding together a fragile coalition.’”

Biden will arrive in Michigan at 2:05 p.m.

At 2:35 p.m., he will tour the SK Siltron CSS facility.

Biden will discuss “how his economic plan is leading to a manufacturing boom, growing the economy, and creating good-paying jobs in Michigan and across the country” at 3:30 p.m.

He will leave Michigan for Joint Base Andrews at 5:35 p.m. and will be back at the White House by 7:35 p.m.

This year’s White House holiday decorations strike a homier note

First lady Jill Biden revealed the White House’s holiday decorations on Nov. 28, meant to make visitors feel warm and at home. (Video: Jackson Barton/The Washington Post)

“Everyone is familiar with those shiny glass mirror ball ornaments you can find at any big-box store, but this year, first lady Jill Biden hung actual mirrors on the trees of the White House’s Grand Foyer. Circular mirrors. Square mirrors. Lean in, and your face will appear, clear as day,” Jura Koncius and Jada Yuan report.

“‘That’s very purposeful, very intentional,’ said Biden’s communications director, Elizabeth Alexander. ‘It’s important for the first lady that people see themselves in the decor.’

Thanks for reading. See you tomorrow.


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