Which is what we what?

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Charles Belov sent in a link to an AP story that contains a puzzling quote from SONY's CEO Michael Lynton ("Sony responds: 'We had no choice'", AP 12/20/2014):

Since Wednesday when Sony cancelled the film’s Dec. 25 release, the studio has come under withering criticism by those who have said capitulating to hackers sets a dangerous precedent. Everyone from George Clooney to Newt Gingrich has bitterly reproached Sony for what they've called self-censorship that goes against American ideals of freedom of expression. Obama said the same Friday morning.  

‘‘I wish they had spoken to me first,’’ said Obama in a press conference. ‘‘We cannot have a society in which some dictatorship someplace can start imposing censorship.’’  

But in an interview with CNN on Friday, Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton disputed that, saying: ‘‘The President, the press and the public are mistaken about what happened.’’ He also said that he spoke to a senior adviser in the White House about the situation.  

‘‘We were taken by surprise by the theaters, which is what we wanted to do first. Now we’re trying to proceed and figure out what the next steps would be,’’ Lynton told CNN.

As Charles noted, the sentence in bold doesn't seem to make any sense.

This is a classic case of attributional abduction: someone is quoted in the press as saying something that seems incoherent, and we have to reason from the available evidence to some explanation. Did the person quoted actually say it? Did the journalist garble the quotation? Did the passage get messed up by an editor? Does the quotation really make sense, in some way that we aren't seeing?

In general, my instinct is to blame the journalist, and In particular, to guess that the quotation has probably been garbled in the note-taking process. Based on the piece of this interview available on CNN's website ("Michael Lynton, Chairman & CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment with CNN's Fareed Zakaria", 12/19/2014), the garbled quotation theory seems plausible:

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Zakaria: Did you make a mistake
Lynton: No. I- I think actually the unfortunate part is in this instance the president the press, and the public are mistaken as to what actually happened.We do not own movie theaters. We cannot determine whether or not a movie will be played in movie theaters.So to sort of rehearse for a moment the sequence of events, we experienced the worst cyberattack in American history, and persevered for three and a half weeks under enormous stress and enormous difficulty, um and all with the effort of trying to keep our business up and running, and get this movie out into the public.When it came to the crucial moment, when a threat came out from what was called the G.O.P. at the time, threatening audiences who would go to the movie theaters, the movie theaters came to us, one by one, over the course of a very short period of time, we were completely surprised by it, and announced that they would not carry the movie.At that point in time, we had no alternative but to not proceed with the theatrical release on the twenty fifth of December. And that's all we did.
Zakaria: So you have not caved in ((to your)
Lynton: We have not caved, we have not given in, we have persevered and we have not backed down, we have- we have always had every desire to have the American public see this movie

It's possible that at some other point in the interview — which I believe will air in a fuller form on CNN tonight — Michael Lynton actually said ‘‘We were taken by surprise by the theaters, which is what we wanted to do first." And maybe that made sense in the context where he said it. But as presented in the AP article, …




  1. Margaret Reardon said,

    December 20, 2014 @ 11:16 am

    This is plain evidence, I believe, of the danger in getting the "news" out as speedily as possible without considering what it means and how it should be presented for the most objectively "truthful" result. Truthiness is too easily accepted by reporters today.

  2. Robert Coren said,

    December 20, 2014 @ 11:44 am

    My take is that the intended meaning (assuming he did actually say it) was that what Sony wanted to "do first" was "the theaters" — i.e., theatrical release. It's somewhat incoherent, but not completely opaque.

    [(myl) Yes, this interpretation has been gradually dawning on me as well. Now the question is whether Lynton actually said something like this, at some other point in the interview.]

  3. Keith said,

    December 20, 2014 @ 2:15 pm

    So the phrase ‘‘We were taken by surprise by the theaters, which is what we wanted to do first." in fact does not appear in Lynton's speech as reported in this article. That is really shoddy journalism.

    The phrase itself is clumsy, but not especially difficult to parse.
    ‘‘We were taken by surprise by the theaters, which is what we wanted to do first" to me means "the theaters took us by surprise, whereas we wanted to take them by surprise".

  4. rgove said,

    December 20, 2014 @ 4:26 pm

    @Keith: that's very clever, and would make sense in some contexts, but it still doesn't make any sense in this one.

  5. Chas Belov said,

    December 20, 2014 @ 6:34 pm

    @Robert Coren: Now that I think of it, your explanation makes sense, again if he did say it. Re-parsing it:

    We were taken by surprise by the theaters, which [theatrical release] is what we wanted to do first.

    Of course the following would make no sense:

    We were taken by surprise by the theatrical release, which is what we wanted to do first.

    But the following would make sense:

    We were taken by surprise by the theaters, who we wanted to do first.

    That's assuming you're okay with theaters being a "who," which they are because "the theatres" are actually theatrical management, not the theater buildings. But then, "do"-ing the theaters does refer to the buildings, not the management, so that wouldn't work either except that it would make more sense.

    Here's the most coherent rewording I could come up with:

    We were taken by surprise by theatre management, and theatrical release is what we wanted to do first.

    And to be journalistic, if he did indeed say it the way it was quoted:

    We were taken by surprise by [theatre management], and [theatrical release] is what we wanted to do first.

    That said, he might have been better off breaking it into two sentences. But I must admit I'd probably have come up with something far worse had I been interviewed on live television.

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 20, 2014 @ 7:05 pm

    IMHO it makes more sense if what they wanted to do first was not "the theaters" merely in the sense of "theatrical release," because that's what is always done first for first-run movies of this sort, but something like "work things out behind the scenes with the major theater chains," i.e.allay whatever concerns they had that were making them reluctant to do the ordinary and customary thing with regard to the particular film and thus get them to go forward with what, under usual circumstances, would be the ordinary and customary thing. But what may have happened is that the theater chains got so spooked so quickly that they publicly announced they weren't going to show the film before the studio had a sufficient opportunity to try to get them unspooked behind the scenes. I'm obviously not sure that that's really what happened, but out of the various plausible scenarios it's one that has the advantage (for the particular speaker quoted) of making the whole outcome seem less like his company's fault.

  7. tpr said,

    December 20, 2014 @ 7:14 pm

    Perhaps "We were taken by surprise by the theaters-" was a false start and "which is what we wanted to do first" was intended to finish whatever sentence preceded it.

    I don't find it particularly plausible that he could have been saying that they wanted to do a theatrical release first because that's absolutely standard for a major film. You don't need to say it.

  8. Rottweiler said,

    December 20, 2014 @ 11:16 pm

    Oh, that reminds me. I am sure it is time to walk my dog. I would love to contribute but it seems I am too low on the level of who say what to whom…

  9. Kim said,

    December 21, 2014 @ 12:20 pm

    @Margaret Reardon:

    Rushed journalism can certainly be bad journalism, but don't think this is new or even much worse now than ever. Reporters have always faced time constraints. In the old days (when phoning a report in to a newsroom from the scene, for instance, or finishing in time for an early paper edition) there were even more opportunities for error to creep in.

    As technology/connectivity have shortened the delay from news scene to completed report it would be nice if some of the time savings were "invested" in careful reviews, but we readers don't seem to value accuracy as much as the chance to learn what's going on promptly. As consumers I'm afraid we get what we ask for…

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