WASHINGTON -- Here's an inviting and cautionary note from an old-media geezer to the new-school bloggers, Webheads and YouTubers: Welcome. You're a valuable addition to the presidential landscape. Just don't get too full of yourselves.
I am moved to inject this little dose of realism into all of the hoopla that has followed the unmasking of the man who created and placed the hilarious "Big Sister" ad that lampoons Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton on YouTube.
Drawing more than 2 million hits in its first days, the spoof re-edits Apple's classic "Big Brother" Super Bowl TV ad to portray the New York Democrat as an Orwellian talking-head image on a huge screen that is shattered by a feisty young woman with an iPod in her ears. The ad closes with the Web address of rival Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama.
The Obama campaign denied having any association with the ad, but it indirectly did. Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post political blog, put what she described as a team of 30 Web staffers to work. They found that the ad's creator was Philip de Vellis, a Democratic Web tech wizard who worked at Blue State Digital, a Washington-based Internet firm whose founders include Joe Rospars, who oversees the Obama Web site. That's embarrassing for Mr. Obama, who has presented himself as above mudslinging, low-blow politics. But a candidate can't be held responsible for actions by all of his supporters.
And, in the Internet age, the actions of supporters and detractors are greatly magnified, as Mr. De Vellis knows. He was quickly fired from Blue State Digital, according to his boss, although he says that he quit, in an online essay that Ms. Huffington invited him to write. But the rising Web-based movement that he represents goes on, he writes.
"This ad was not the first citizen ad, and it will not be the last," he writes. "The game has changed." Well, yes - but not by all that much.
The promise of YouTube, the most popular of the sites that enable users to post videos, is in its slogan, "Broadcast Yourself." But what do you really get, YouTubers? Merely access to compete as just one more voice among the multitudes trying to grab a piece of viewers' time.
Go to YouTube and you'll join millions of users, but you'll also find a gazillion choices, most of which seem to be teenagers pantomiming tunes in front of their bedroom computers.
The "Hillary 1984" clip had unusual impact for one simple reason: It accomplished what it set out to do. It was clever and well-crafted.
But was anyone's mind changed by it? Did anyone who was prepared to vote for Senator Clinton decide, after watching this ad, to switch his vote? At best, the ad was an electronic version of an editorial cartoon. It was clever, amusing, provocative and even polarizing. But that's about the limits of the power any of us opinion-mongers have.
That's not to say that YouTube or blogs sometimes don't make a difference. The video clip of George Allen, for example, flinging his "macaca" slur at a researcher for his opposition undoubtedly greased the slide that cost the Virginia Republican his Senate seat last year. But that clip wasn't opinion. It was factual reporting. That's another inescapable truth of the new media: Facts still matter.
The new media, like the old, bear the burden of competition, keeping facts straight, and, inevitably, feeding the beast of audience hunger.
As Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia University Journalism School, reported in The New Yorker last August, bloggers have empowered countless people to be journalists, but most of what they report is rehashed from traditional media. The proper comparison for most blogs, he said, is more often to a church newsletter than it is to The New York Times. In that spirit, most YouTube submissions are closer to home movies than to 60 Minutes.
So, welcome to the game, bloggers, YouTubers, podcasters and the rest. Your voices are welcome. But don't expect to rewrite the rules overnight. Whether old or new media, we all serve our audiences. The gadgets may change, but "the game" remains the same.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.