Amantha Perera takes note of America’s take on the free media and advent of AI in journalism

For US diplomats these days, public interaction overseas is all about defending the indefensible. President Donald Trump keeps making one boo-boo after another and they’ve been left to resort to damage control as best they can.

And so it was recently in Singapore for US Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Michelle Giuda.

She headlined the international media conference at the East West Center and was talking eloquently about how the US administration was supporting media freedom across the world. But it was obvious from the whispers, nods and shakes of heads among the audience that most of Giuda’s comments were viewed as being ironic.

When the time came for questions, their tone showed how much the US has faded as the bastion of free expression since the Obama administration. Her responses in turn revealed how difficult a task US diplomats are faced with. Giuda kept her composure but it was clear that she was squirming despite valiantly sticking to the script.

Former Managing Editor at USA Today Donna Leinwand Leger was left with the unenviable task of making sure the interactive session didn’t spiral into an argument. And she could not help but ask whether it was impossible for diplomats to defend freedom of expression while Trump attacked the media so viciously.

The diplomatic standoff held and Giuda’s stock answer was that the United States still enjoys a free press, and that its president is entitled to his own views, however outlandish – and is simply airing them freely.

These East West Center conferences have become a mainstay of US interaction in the region. In 2014, it was held in Yangon as Myanmar headed into elections; it was headlined by Aung San Suu Kyi. Two years later, it was in New Delhi – at which conference Trump was starting to make people take note of him. Hillary Clinton was still the front-runner for the presidency but the reality TV personality was catching up.

At both conferences, US diplomats were on time-tested territory talking of free press and diversity. I remember former US Ambassador to India Richard Verma talking about increasing engagement with New Delhi. People viewed Verma as someone who had strong connections with the Clinton camp due to his close interaction with the Democratic candidate when she was the Secretary of State.

The buzz was that he was headed for a more influential role if she won.

Then there’s the former Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal who was once a frequent visitor to Colombo. When was the last time her successor visited Sri Lanka?

Those diplomats at least could talk of US engagement on matters relating to free press without any irony. When their successors do that now, they’re lampooned – and that trend is not likely to change any time soon.

At no other time has the US faced such a situation than when liberal values that made it a bulwark against conservatism are being challenged at the core. America has been championing democratic rights in countries like Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and even Sri Lanka for decades but given Trump’s track record, it would be hard for him to criticise any of these nations or even the worst violators.

It was even more ironic that soon after Giuda’s uncomfortable back and forth with the audience, a Chinese lady wowed and unnerved the audience.

The first time I met Caitlyn Chen was in 2001, less than a month after the 9/11 attacks when both of us travelled in the US as part of a fellowship programme. At the time, she was a reporter with the Southern Weekly. Chen now holds a senior position in a major IT company.

Though the name Tencent may mean nothing to most Sri Lankans, it is the fifth largest internet media company in the world. It can potentially serve an audience of 700 million, which is the ballpark figure for China’s web audience.

What Chen showcased was where the media is heading – machine generated content. Large media companies like Tencent, and even Reuters and Xinhua are not only experimenting with AI but also publishing stories produced by robots.

Chen used AI for simultaneous translations. She spoke in Chinese and the translations appeared on the screen. Though it wasn’t perfect, it was understandable. What drew the audience’s attention was how AI kept adjusting the sentences it had translated as the context became clearer. The machine was learning how to capture the drift. And Chen was not referring to a script.

Xinhua officials at the same conference revealed that they weren’t using AI to put together stories on the 2018 World Cup scores. Reuters uses machine generated inputs for small stories on corporate performance derived from financial records.

According to Chen, Tencent hopes to free its pool of writers to engage in better in-depth journalism while using AI for tasks like translations. Many in the audience were rather sceptical about that claim, given China’s track record on surveillance and press censorship.

This is where the future is heading…

The millennials and generations following them will want their news in quick time; they want this news in crisp and bite format on their mobile screens. So complaining and whining about this will not get journalists anywhere. They need to adapt to the times and jump onto the info superhighway while producing quality work rather than stand on the kerb moping.