Nebraska Republican Governor Jim Pillen was widely criticized after he dismissed a critical news article about his business by citing the nationality of the reporter, Yanqi Xu, whom he referred to as being from "communist China."
Xu's investigation, published in the Flatwater Free Press last month, revealed high nitrate levels at Pillen's hog farms. The investigative report, based on government records, revealed that 16 of Pillen's farms had nitrate levels five times higher than the safe drinking water standard.
When questioned about the article on Nebraska radio, Pillen not only dismissed it but also criticized Xu's Chinese nationality, stating:
“No. 1, I didn’t read it. And I won’t. No. 2, all you got to do is look at the author."
"The author is from communist China. What more do you need to know?”
Xu, who grew up in Guangzhou, China, and later moved to the United States, holds a master's degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia and has worked at Flatwater Free Press for two years. The news outlet's executive director, Matt Wynn, described her as an outstanding and "courageous" reporter.
Wynn mentioned that the newspaper took time to respond to the governor's comments due to Xu's visa status, which is reserved for those with "extraordinary ability."
Xu has lived in the United States since 2017 and conveyed her shock and sadness at the governor's comments, stressing the importance of ensuring that Nebraskans have access to vital information.
After discussing the incident with outlets like The New York Times, Xu said she "never wanted to make [herself] the story," adding:
"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 said that "nuances matter" when reporting the facts, which is why she took it upon herself to contact Pillen's office and business after seeing the records of high nitrate levels at his hog farms."
She noted that "nitrate easily seeps into groundwater and poses risks to drinking water," a fact that motivated her to ultimately publish the report in the public interest.
She added that she is "beyond grateful for the outpouring of love and support I’ve gotten" since Pillen's comments went viral:
"All this just reminds me of why I came into this field. And the 17-year-old me learning to strike up a convo with a stranger would agree — I would never feel alone. And thanks to everyone who's reached out!"
Many have come to Xu's defense and criticized Pillen for his words.
With Xu's blessing, Wynn published a column in her defense that noted the incident was "the first time anyone has written [Xu] off based on her origin" and that unfortunately "it was broadcast, over the air, by the governor of Nebraska."
“As an employer, that infuriates me. As a believer in democracy and a free press, it saddens me. As a Nebraskan, it embarrasses me.”
Pillen's office has not responded to questions about the incident.