Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen Criticized for Comments on Reporter’s Chinese Nationality

Gov. Jim Pillen of Nebraska is facing criticism after he dismissed a news article about environmental concerns at his hog farms, saying that the reporter who wrote it was from “Communist China.”

The reporter, Yanqi Xu, 27, revealed her findings in an article published Sep. 7 by The Flatwater Free Press that detailed nitrate levels “far above” the legal drinking water limit at more than a dozen farms owned by Mr. Pillen, a Republican. While the farms had brought prosperity to Platte Center, a village about 60 miles northwest of Lincoln, Neb., they “also may bring risk” to the region’s drinking water, Ms. Xu wrote.

During an interview on the Omaha radio station KFAB four days later, Mr. Pillen, who was sworn into office in January, was asked to comment on the investigation. “Number one, I didn’t read it and I won’t,” he responded. “Number two, all you’ve got to do is look at the author, author’s from Communist China — what more do you need to know?”

On Wednesday evening, Ms. Xu, who has a master’s degree from the University of Missouri and is pursuing a second master’s degree in analytics, said in a phone interview that she was “shocked and saddened” by the governor’s comments.

“It was disappointing,” Ms. Xu said, noting that after working very hard to come to the United States, she had become comfortable in Nebraska after two years there. She said that she had weighed the possible repercussions of speaking out, because she is in the country on a work visa. She said she had ultimately decided to speak out on behalf of the Chinese community. “Nebraskans deserve to know this,” she said. “The comment was about me, but it was, you know — it was more than just me.”

She added, “I just felt that it was the right thing to do.”

Governor Pillen’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Wednesday evening.

The Flatwater Free Press, an independent nonprofit newsroom based in Omaha, Neb., said in a statement on Tuesday that it had waited several weeks to respond to the governor’s comments, in part because of Ms. Xu’s visa, which the organization did not want to jeopardize.

“We also took our time because, frankly, this is uncomfortable,” Matt Wynn, the executive director of the Nebraska Journalism Trust, which launched and finances the Flatwater Free Press, wrote in the statement. “Good journalists like Yanqi want to write stories — they don’t want to be the story.”

Mr. Wynn described Ms. Xu as “a courageous reporter, a remarkable reporter” who grew up in Guangzhou, China, and had moved to the United States in 2017 to further her journalism career, publishing “revelatory stories” like the Sep. 7 investigation, for which she “combed through hundreds of government records to find that a dozen Pillen operations violated state regulations.”

According to her story, 16 of the governor’s hog farms had recorded nitrate levels five times higher than is considered safe to drink. Ingesting high levels of nitrate can have detrimental health effects for infants and there is some evidence to suggest it causes cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mr. Wynn said that Governor Pillen had declined to respond to the findings of Ms. Xu’s story before it was published, and that he had not responded to emails or calls requesting an apology. He said the comments made by the governor were the first time anyone had derided Ms. Xu’s work based on her origin.

“As an employer, that infuriates me,” Mr. Wynn said in the statement. “As a believer in democracy and a free press,” he added, “it saddens me.”

In a statement released on Wednesday, the Asian American Journalists Association said it “stands with Yanqi Xu,” noting that “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.” Several other journalists and media organizations expressed their support of Ms. Xu on social media.

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