In August, reporter Yanqi Xu heard her name called from a stage in Philadelphia for a national award recognizing Our Dirty Water, her series examining Nebraska’s high nitrate levels and their potential connection to childhood cancer.
Weeks later, she published a piece looking at the environmental impact of Pillen Family Farms, Gov. Jim Pillen’s company. She found that 16 Pillen hog farms have recorded nitrate levels higher than 50 parts per million – five times higher than is considered safe to drink. One farm recorded a reading of 445 parts per million.
Yanqi combed through hundreds of government records to find that a dozen Pillen operations violated state regulations. Employees at one farm constructed a PVC pipe to drain pig waste into a freshwater channel.
Four days after we published that story, Governor Jim Pillen called into KFAB radio from a trade mission in Japan. He touted Nebraska’s historical support for immigrants, saying “We are the most welcoming state in the country.”
Then the governor was asked to comment on Yanqi’s work.
“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?”
What more do you need to know?
Much, much more.
Yanqi Xu (pronounced “Yen-chee Shu”) did grow up in China, in Guangzhou. She left for Beijing, where she studied English and international journalism.
She then left everything she had ever known. She moved to the United States. She wanted to pursue American-style journalism.
She earned her masters degree at my alma mater, the University of Missouri-Columbia. She got a crash course in the power of government transparency while working at the National Freedom of Information Coalition. She anchored for a radio station. She began using data to find and tell revelatory stories at the National Institute for Computer Assisted-Reporting and the Investigative Reporting Workshop. She eventually joined North Carolina Policy Watch, that state’s chapter of States Newsroom, which also launched Nebraska Examiner.
Then she joined us at Flatwater Free Press almost exactly two years ago now, and wasted no time becoming a key reporter – for us, and for Nebraska.
Her work speaks for itself.
Yanqi sniffed out the larger story behind a recall effort in Alvo. She examined overtime in the prison system to discover employees doubling their salary by working 100-hour weeks. She analyzed the attendance records of the Nebraska Board of Parole, finding that the full board showed up together to hearings 37 percent of the time. (They started showing up for hearings far more in the year after her story ran.)
She has done all of this while pursuing a second master’s degree, this time in analytics. And she is far more than even the impressive sum of her stories.
Yanqi loves live music. She hated the Nebraska wind when she moved here, though she said this week that she’s growing used to it. She works late. She didn’t get to see her parents back in China for three years during COVID-19, until she could finally visit last December.
She’s whip smart. She’s pit bull stubborn. She’s a courageous reporter, a remarkable reporter.
She’s remarkable, period.
That’s not merely my opinion. The United States government, our government, recently awarded her a visa reserved for those with “extraordinary ability.” Her experience was documented by Poynter, an industry publication, earlier this year.
It is in part because of her status that we took our time responding to the governor’s statement. We consulted with immigration attorneys to ensure we wouldn’t be putting her at risk by defending her – by making the case that, yes, there is much more to know about Yanqi Xu than where she’s from.
But we also took our time because, frankly, this is uncomfortable. Good journalists like Yanqi want to write stories – they don’t want to be the story.
We in the media are used to criticism. We do it ourselves, questioning our own reporting, our biases, our facts, our sources.
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.
This week, I also offered Pillen the opportunity to apologize for his words, calling his office and emailing his staff. He has yet to respond. I hope he still will. 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.
Yanqi has been in the United States since 2017. She has lived in four states and Washington DC. This, she said, is the first time anyone has written her off based on her origin. And 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.