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Star Tribune shuts down commenters ripping Target, CEO Steinhafel

Even though the newsroom has shown no advertiser fear by publicizing Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel’s opposition to an eating-disorder clinic near his home, the paper’s web managers decided today to turn off all comments on the subject, in some cases d

First, let’s be clear: The Star Tribune’s newsroom has shown zero fear pinning a big red bulls-eye on Gregg Steinhafel’s back. Reporter Herón Márquez Estrada has penned not one but three stories referencing the Target CEO’s opposition to an eating disorder clinic near his Orono home. So you cannot say the Strib has kow-towed to one of its biggest advertisers.

Still, after news broke Thursday morning that the Emily Program had bailed on the plan, commenters were livid. They weren’t just angry that Steinhafel’s apparent NIMBY-ism nixed a good cause, but that the Strib deleted comments on Márquez Estrada’s original March 8 story.

The Strib’s response? They took down the newest comments, too, and erased those on a March 9 piece, where feedback had been untouched until today’s eruption.

Such shutdowns are not unprecedented — as I noted last summer, the Strib had several story categories it ruled off-limits (though none involved suburban burghers flexing their muscles). A few months later, the paper announced fewer topics would be off-limits after hiring more moderators to review every comment.

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So why would any comment thread need to be yanked if all are being reviewed? Strib digital media director Jason Erdahl had this explanation:

The commenting on the previous Steinhafel story was turned off after the discussion took a nasty tangent going after Target, the company. It was also loaded with personal attacks against Steinhafel, which is against our commenting policy. Subsequent stories all will have commenting turned off at this point because of the concerns over the first story.

Stupidly, I didn’t save any screen shots of this morning’s comments, but there were calls for Target boycotts — and criticism of such protests.

For sure, there were plenty of folks with torches and pitchforks blasting Steinhafel and his allies for carrying torches and pitchforks. But let’s face it, the March 8 story — headlined “Clinic: Target CEO pressuring Orono” — invited such comments.

Still, there are stories that simply generate more heat than light. The site’s terms of use forbid comments that are “harassing, harmful, threatening, abusive, vulgar, obscene, defamatory, libelous, hateful, or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable or harmful to minors in any way.”

Although Erdahl didn’t mention this, there have been times when the Strib has shut down comments because certain stories suck up too much moderation time. Sometimes, triage demands simply hitting the off switch.

Then again, moderation may be most valuable for stories such as Orono vs. Emily, which evoke important questions about privilege and forcing necessary services into poorer communities. In some cases, the Strib will let commenters know they’re treading on thin ice, including a red tagline underneath a story stating “Comments will be reviewed before being published.”

Steinhafel, by the way, isn’t the only exec spared; Denny Hecker appears to be off-limits. The Strib also regularly shields less powerful groups that provoke the uncivil, forbidding comments on stories involving gays (though not exclusively) and Muslims (though not exclusively).