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Leading Black Think Tank Launches Media and Technology Institute

The leading U.S. think tank on African-American affairs is launching an institute to study the impact of media and new communication technologies on minority and socially disadvantaged communities. Along with notable communications and media leaders, officials from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies announced Thursday that the Washington-based think tank has established the Joint Center Media and Technology Institute.

          Officials say the Media and Technology Institute is a “center for research on how minority Americans use media, how existing communications policies affect them and how emerging interactive forms of media can expand opportunity for them and their communities.” Michael K. Powell, a former Federal Communications Commission chairman and the son of retired General Colin Powell, will chair the institute’s national advisory committee.

“For many young people living in underserved communities, the stakes are enormously high. This Institute will examine these new trends and build the evidentiary record for the development of relevant policies, programs and initiatives,” says Ralph Everett, president and CEO of the Joint Center. “New communications technologies are having an enormous and immediate impact on the way we live, the way we work, the way we learn and the way we participate in the political process.”

          Joining Everett at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. to mark the institute’s launch were William E. Kennard, a former Federal Communications Commission chairman; Larry Irving, a former administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA); and Retha Hill, the director of the New Media Innovation Lab at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

          Over the next few months, the Joint Center will announce the selection of a vice president to serve as the institute’s director and to lead a team of senior fellows to pursue research projects. Startup funding for the institute is provided by Comcast Corporation, Verizon Communications, the CTIA-The Wireless Association, Microsoft Corporation, and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. Irving, who is credited with having created the term “digital divide” during his Clinton administration tenure, will serve as a senior fellow at the institute.

           “There is a very compelling need for this institute. I know that based on my experience as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission during President Clinton’s second term of office. We focused a lot on trying to bridge the digital divide and there was a real lack of scholarship and data on the way technology is deployed to underserved and minority communities,” says Kennard, who serves as co-chairman of the Joint Center’s board.

          “We saw in the presidential election that technology played a really important role in enhancing participation among African-Americans and other minority communities,” Kennard adds. “Now, a lot of people know this anecdotally, but there has not been any real scholarship to understand how that happened and why it happened the way it did.”

          Hill says the Joint Center’s institute should fill a much-needed role because U.S. colleges and universities have not been as aggressive, as she believes they should, in tracking and analyzing the impact of new media and digital technology in American life. Only a few universities, such as Arizona State University, the University of Southern California and the University of California-Berkeley, are taking new media studies seriously as an academic specialty, she contends.

          “There are a lot of media issues impacting people of color that need exploring. Everything from the impact of social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook to mobile technologies to the diversification of television signals with the move to digital,” Hill says. “It impacts how much the general public knows about news and issues of importance.” 

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