Nebraska Gov. Pillen faces national criticism after dismissing reporter by country of origin

Flatwater Free Press blasted Gov. Jim Pillen in a Tuesday column; Pillen has not responded to numerous requests for comment or an apology

By: - October 18, 2023 8:25 pm

Gov. Jim Pillen is facing national criticism for comments dismissing reporting by Yanqi Xu of the Flatwater Free Press into nitrate levels at Pillen Family Farms. (Photos by Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner and courtesy of Joseph Saaid for Flatwater Free Press)

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include comments from The Asian American Foundation.

LINCOLN — Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen is facing national criticism after he dismissed a nonprofit newsroom’s investigative reporter in September based on her country of origin.

Gov. Jim Pillen. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

In September, 1110 KFAB radio’s Gary Sadlemyer asked Pillen if he had any comment on a Flatwater Free Press investigation by reporter Yanqi Xu into Pillen Family Farms — owned by the governor’s family — that detailed how 16 Pillen hog farms recorded nitrate levels more than five times higher than what is considered safe to drink.

“Number one, I didn’t read it. And I won’t,” Pillen told Sadlemyer. “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?”

Matt Wynn, executive director of the Nebraska Journalism Trust that launched and funds Flatwater, fired back at Pillen in a Tuesday column. He called Pillen’s comments infuriating and dead wrong and that yes, there is much more to know than where Xu is from.

Wynn described taking time to respond to Pillen, in part because the U.S. government recently awarded Xu a visa reserved for those with “extraordinary ability.” Those in the news media are used to criticism, he added, and they often question their own reporting, biases, facts and sources.

“Had Governor Pillen spoken to the facts Yanqi found, I wouldn’t be writing this now,” Wynn wrote. “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.”

Radio silence from Pillen

Pillen and his office have not responded to multiple requests for comment from Flatwater or other local and national media, including the Nebraska Examiner. 

Pillen Family Farms, in a September statement to Flatwater, said they work daily to ensure their environmental practices “exceed industry standards” and are committed to the well-being of their pigs, team members and communities. The company and Sarah Pillen, a co-CEO and one of Pillen’s children, did not respond to a Wednesday request for comment.

KFAB host Jim Rose on Wednesday addressed the situation as a “three-way collision” between business, government and journalism. He pointed to a fear of “Chinese spies” supporting the Chinese Communist Party — particularly in agriculture — as justification for Pillen’s comments.

“Clearly, Pillen is predisposed to believe that Xu may not be just a reporter,” Rose said.

‘She’s remarkable, period’

Xu grew up in Guangzhou, China, and left for Beijing to study English and international journalism. She came to the United States in 2017 for a master’s degree, and she has reported in four states and Washington, D.C. This includes North Carolina Policy Watch (now NC Newsline), which is part of the States Newsroom network of nonprofit news outlets, which include the Nebraska Examiner.

Matt Wynn of the Flatwater Free Press. (Courtesy photo by Joseph Saaid for Flatwater Free Press)

In Xu’s two years with Flatwater, she has reported on attendance rates of the Nebraska Board of Parole and has written award-winning work investigating the state’s nitrate levels. 

“She’s whip smart. She’s pit bull stubborn. She’s a courageous reporter, a remarkable reporter,” Wynn said. “She’s remarkable, period.”

Pillen’s comments are the first time anyone has written Xu off based on her nationality, Wynn said.

“As an employer, that infuriates me. As a believer in democracy and a free press, it saddens me,” Wynn wrote. “As a Nebraskan, it embarrasses me.”

National organizations weigh in

The Asian American Journalists Association Board of Directors also defended Xu, an association member, with “unwavering support” in a Wednesday statement.

Yanqi Xu of the Flatwater Free Press. (Courtesy photo by Joseph Saaid for Flatwater Free Press)

The directors said their communities have seen a troubling trend in anti-Asian discrimination, xenophobia and violence. AAJA continues to encourage newsrooms to support AAPI journalists as they cover such incidents or experience discrimination themselves.

“Journalists play an indispensable role in holding power to account and informing the public,” the AAJA board said. “Having an independent and diverse press corps is essential to democracy, and Xu, an investigative reporter who grew up in China, deserves to do her job without being judged because of her nationality.“

Norman Chen, CEO of The Asian American Foundation in San Francisco, echoed the AAJA in a Thursday statement describing Pillen’s remarks as “not only appalling but also outright racist.”

Chen said Asian Americans are the fastest-growing minority group in Nebraska, at about 3.5% of residents. He called on Pillen to apologize to Xu and work with local AAPI leaders to understand the implications of his remarks and rebuild trust within the community.

“Anti-Chinese rhetoric skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic and continues to have dangerous consequences for the safety of the whole Asian American community,” Chen said. “For the Governor, the highest leader in the state, to publicly degrade a journalist based on her ethnicity fosters an environment where AAPIs cannot feel safe and do not feel like they belong.”

NBC News reported that Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif. and chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, condemned Pillen’s remarks as a “baseless xenophobic attack” and called on him to apologize.

“Failing to do so only contributes to more hostility and suspicion of people from China and Asian Americans broadly,” Chu said.

‘If I don’t do it, who would?’

Xu told NBC News that it’s important to speak up and can be hard at first because it makes someone the center of the story.

“Especially as a woman of color, if the other person who made such a comment about you is the most powerful person in the state, how do you respond?” Xu told NBC. “But I think for me, I found myself coming back to this point of: If I don’t do it, who would?”

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Zach Wendling
Zach Wendling

Zach rejoins the Nebraska Examiner after studying abroad in Antigua, Guatemala, following a yearlong Examiner internship. His coverage focus areas have included politics and government, health and well-being and higher education.