‘DON’T BITE!!!': A Mystery Warning From the New York Times, Explained

What a 1988 story has to do with Clinton v. Trump

On July 26, 1988, the New York Times ended a story with two ominous words, intensified by three exclamation points:

“DON’T BITE!!!”

What kind of story was it, you ask? An open letter to mosquitos? Or sharks?

No. It was about polling in the presidential race between Mike Dukakis and George H.W. Bush, and the strong prospects of the Democratic contender, Dukakis.

Here is the paragraph in question, a dry detailing of polls that would prove unhelpful to Dukakis as he went on to lose the election:

Don't Bite

At some point over the next 28 years, the story, headlined “Dukakis Lead Widens, According to New Poll,” made its way to the Times’ online archive, where a reporter for TheWrap (hello) came across it while looking for comparisons to Hillary Clinton’s current lead over Donald Trump. The reporter eventually wrote this story.

But that doesn’t solve the mystery of “DON’T BITE!!!”

Dukakis’ come-from-ahead loss to Bush may offer a warning to Clinton supporters: Don’t buy into the idea that her victory is any more of a sure thing than Dukakis’ seemed to be in the summer of 1988. In other words, don’t bite.

Did the nation’s newspaper of record slip in the two words as a warning to Dukakis supporters — perhaps the only people likely to read to the very end — telling them not to be complacent?

Or was it a note the writer left for an editor and forgot to remove?

Or perhaps — perhaps — the Times of 1988 was sending a message to the Googling readers of the future, forewarning that what happened to Dukakis could happen to Clinton as well?

We asked the New York Times.

To our surprise and delight, they bit. The paper’s PR team provided us the following statement from the Times’ historian, David Dunlap:

“An easy guess: the last sentence of this short article contains important information (i.e., The Chicago Tribune polling results), so the printer on the composing room floor is essentially being told: ‘Do not automatically slice off the bottom of the story! Consult an editor first!’

“Remember that these were the days before pagination, so a bit of guesswork was still involved between typesetting and layout of the final page.
“Ordinarily, a printer would have had some discretion on his own to “bite” a story at the bottom if it was not fitting into the proscribed layout; since most articles were written as inverted pyramids, with the least important information in the final grafs or sentences.”
And so the mystery was solved … maybe. But the history remains.
As of this writing, the story remains on the Times’ website, “DON’T BITE!!!” intact.
Brian Flood contributed to this story.