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New Media, Same Game

By Clarence Page

Here's a welcoming and cautionary note from an Old Media geezer to the new-school bloggers, Webheads and YouTubers: 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 the hoopla that has followed the unmasking of the man who created and placed the hilarious "Big Sister" ad lampooning Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton on YouTube.

The ad re-edits Apple's classic "Big Brother" ad to portray Clinton 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 video drew more than 2 million hits in its first days on YouTube.

The ad closes with the Web address for Clinton's rival candidate, Sen. Barack Obama. The Illinois senator denied any association with the ad, noting with a wry chuckle that his campaign didn't even have the technical capabilities for such a slick job.

Actually, it did, indirectly. Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post political blog, put what she described as a team of 30 Web staffers to work. They found the ad's creator was Philip de Vellis, 33, a Democratic Web tech wizard who worked for Blue State Digital, the Washington, D.C., Internet firm whose founders include Joe Rospars, who oversees the Obama Web site. That's embarrassing for Obama. But in fairness to him and to Clinton, whose fans already have posted anti-Obama clips on YouTube and elsewhere, a candidate can't be held responsible for the actions of all of their supporters.

And, in the Internet age, the actions of supporters and detractors are greatly magnified, as De Vellis knows. He was quickly fired from Blue State Digital, according to his boss, although in an online essay on Huffington Post he says he quit. But the rising Web-based movement that he represents goes on. "This ad was not the first citizen ad, and it will not be the last," he wrote. "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 their own videos, is in its slogan, "Broadcast Yourself." Slick campaign ads, among other things, no longer need to be left to the professional marketers and spin doctors. Anyone with the skills can post their own videos or blogs and, with today's user-friendly cameras and computers, it doesn't take all that much skill. Even a klutz like me can do it.

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' valuable time. Go to YouTube you can join millions of users but you'll also find a kajillion choices, most of which seem to be short videos of teenagers pantomiming pop tunes in front of their bedroom computer cameras.

The "Hillary 1984" clip had unusual impact for one simple reason: It accomplished what it set out to do. It was clever, well-crafted and it delivered its message with a "Pow!" High impact.

But was anyone's mind changed by it? Did anyone who was prepared to vote for Clinton decide, after watching this ad, to switch their vote? That's hard to say because no one knows. 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 limit of the power any of us opinion mongers have.

That's not to say that YouTube or the bloggers sometimes don't make a difference. The video clip of former Sen. George Allen, for example, flinging his weird "macaca" slur at a researcher for his Democratic opponent, James Webb, 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 audience's bottomless appetite. That's what the framers of the First Amendment had in mind -- and all they had was quill pens and moveable type.

As Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia University Journalism School, argued in The New Yorker last August, bloggers have empowered countless people to call themselves journalists, but most of what they report is rehashed from the old 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, say, CBS' "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.

Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C. E-mail:

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