Wertheimer ’65 moderates first round of the Wellesley Debates
Published: Wednesday, October 3, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, October 3, 2012 19:10
Wellesley Debates held their first event of the academic year on Saturday, Sept. 29 in Jewett Hall Auditorium. This semester, students disputed the effects of interest groups’ negative advertisements on the American political process, with particular focus on the 2012 presidential campaign.
The debates, held once in the fall and once in the spring, was organized by a committee of three students and moderated by Linda Wertheimer ’65, NPR’s senior national correspondent. Approximately 120 people were in attendance. The teams, each comprised of two Wellesley students, drew particular attention to the 2010 Citizens United case and recent voter turnout trends
Gabrielle Jones ’14 and Claire Tam ’15, who argued in favor of the motion, asserted that negative advertisements weaken voter confidence, reduce voter turnout and trivialize the political process by resorting to personal gossip.
Jones and Tam frequently referred to the Citizens United ruling—which declared government restriction of corporations’ and unions’ political donations a violation of free speech. They argued that the ruling led to a loss of accountability on the part of interest groups who fund negative advertisements as well as an unequal distribution of power between those who can afford to use advertisements to manipulate the political process and those who cannot.
“It is important to ask about the story behind these advertisements,” Tam said. “Who is funding them? Where did the money come from?...Disturbingly, in more and more cases, these advertisements are funded by third-party interest groups that do not disclose their donors but are capable of raising enormous sums of money on behalf of candidates.”
To further her previous point, Tam pointed out that elections often hinge on uninformed and undecided voters, who are most susceptible to campaign ads. Her partner Jones added that negative advertisements often marginalize large sections of the population by portraying a limited view of what it means to be American.
Angelina Spilios ’14 and Marilynn Willey ’14, who opposed the motion, argued that negative advertisements are often an effective way for interest groups to spread accurate and relevant information to voters. That information, they said, could play a crucial role in voters’ decisions. Spilios and Wiley pointed out that negative ads are on average 60 percent more truthful than positive ads, according to a study by Professor John Geer of Vanderbilt University.
“No matter how much money you put into your ads, if they don’t contain accurate information, they are not going to resonate with voters,” Willey argued.
Willey and Spilios also asserted that negative advertisements encourage political participation, directly contradicting their opponents, who argued that negative ads reduce voter turnout. Willey and Spilios supported their point by citing a study conducted by researchers at the University of Notre Dame and the University of Texas at Dallas that showed viewers of political advertisements are more likely to be motivated by negative cues as opposed to positive cues.
Tam attacked the assertion by referring to an alternate set of statistics from the most recent Republican primary, which showed a decrease in voter participation.
“In all the [swing] states with lots of negative advertisements, voter turnout was lower,” she said. “[And] we know that turnout has decreased in the years 2010 to 2012.”
The disagreement over the effect of negative advertising on voter participation was a recurring theme throughout the debate. Willey and Spilios challenged their opponents on a constitutional level, arguing that both negative and positive information is crucial to voters’ decisions and contribute to a healthy democracy. They invoked first amendment rights, emphasizing the need for a free flow of criticism in U.S. political discourse.
“Whether we like it or not, negative ads play an important role in the political process,” Willey said. “Understanding what a leader has done badly is crucial to making a decision.”
Spilios ended strongly with a recent quote by President Barack Obama.
“‘The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech.’ We need to keep the dialogue free and open,” she concluded.
Wertheimer praised the debaters and acknowledged the difficulty in arguing that negative advertisements and interest groups play a positive role in American politics.
“I think [the debate] went very well,” Wertheimer said. “I think one of the cases was harder to argue than the other. And I think this huge influx of money has provided far more negative ads than we’ve ever seen before, and we’re just not sure how that’s going to turn out.”
Those in attendance agreed that special interests and negative advertisements would play a crucial role in this year’s presidential race. The election in November will be the first presidential election to take place since the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Citizens United in 2010.
In her opening remarks, Wertheimer stressed the importance of the debate over the role of special interest groups in the current political arena.
“I think this is one of the most important issues that will play out over the course of this campaign,” Wertheimer stated. “As some of you may [recall], Watergate began with unlimited contributions by corporations...The young women who will graduate this year will graduate into a political climate not so different from the one I graduated into.”