Nebraska Governor Jim Pillen is facing backlash after he implied Chinese investigative reporter Yanqi Xu is a “communist” while dismissing her critical report about his hog farming operation.
About the report: Xu’s report with the Flatwater Free Press (FFP), which was republished by other news outlets as well, raised concerns about the environmental impact of Pillen’s hog farms on drinking water. Xu found data for 16 of his hog farms that showed high nitrate levels.
Pillen’s response: When radio station KFAB asked Pillen to comment on the report, the governor did not respond directly to the article but instead criticized Xu’s background.
“Number one, I didn’t read it. And I won’t,” Pillen said. “Number two, all you got to do is look at the author. The author is from communist China. What more do you need to know?”
FFP criticizes Pillen: The governor’s comment led Matt Wynn, FFP’s executive director, to issue a letter of outrage on Tuesday.
“We in the media are used to criticism. We do it ourselves, questioning our own reporting, our biases, our facts, our sources,” Wynn wrote.
“Had Governor Pillen spoken to the facts Yanqi found, I wouldn’t be writing this now. Elected officials deserve the chance to respond to findings. We offered every opportunity for him to do so before we ran the story. He declined them all… I hope that he takes the time to reflect on his response and understand why it may make many thousands of Nebraskans feel less welcome here… As an employer, that infuriates me. As a believer in democracy and a free press, it saddens me. As a Nebraskan, it embarrasses me.”
Backlash against Pillen: Along with FFP, the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) stood up for Xu’s work, emphasizing the importance of holding those in power accountable and defending diverse journalists.
“Having an independent and diverse press corps is essential to democracy, and Yanqui Xu deserves to do her job without fear of being dismissed and discredited solely because of her country of origin,” AAJA executive director Naomi Tacuyan Underwood said. “AAJA stands with Yanqui Xu and the Flatwater Free Press, and we’re committed to supporting a pipeline of diverse journalists who can hold governments accountable without being subjected to xenophobic stereotypes.”
Many local journalists and officials, including State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha, also took to social media to express support for Xu, calling Pillen’s remarks racist and demanding an apology.
“Governor Pillen needs to apologize and do something to address the racism that is in his heart. This is deplorable,” Hunt wrote on X.
Omaha World-Herald reporter Lauren Wagner also commented, writing, “Disgusting words from our own governor about one of Nebraska’s best journalists. We are so, so lucky to have her here,”
In an interview with 6 News, Xu said, “I found it disheartening that it was the only thing he said. I had hoped the governor would respond and that could help tell the full story in a way. But I was not expecting him to only address one thing: where I’m from.”
About Xu: Xu, who grew up in China, has lived in the U.S. since 2017. She pursued American journalism and earned her master’s degree at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Xu’s work for FFP, an independent nonprofit news organization, examining high nitrate levels and its potential link to childhood cancer previously won a national award.
“Being a reporter, I never wanted to make myself the story. But this time, I thought there’s more at stake than myself. I think about the community I represent, and who might find the governor’s comment hurtful,” Xu shared on X.