Governor’s comments about FFP reporter infuriating, dead wrong

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?”

Editor’s note: Listen to Gov. Pillen’s comments on KFAB. At the :28 mark, he speaks about Nebraska being welcoming. At the 1:38 mark, he’s asked about Yanqi Xu’s Flatwater Free Press story.

What more do you need to know? 

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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.

Yanqi Xu, FFP investigative reporter

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. 

Yanqi Xu, Flatwater Free Press investigative reporter, goes over a story with Sara Gentzler, FFP’s state government watchdog reporter, earlier this year.

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.

Matt Wynn, FFP exec director and this column’s author

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. 

By Matt Wynn

Matt Wynn is the Executive Director of the Nebraska Journalism Trust, which launched and funds the Flatwater Free Press. He has spent 13 years at news organizations across the country, most recently on the investigative team at USA Today. He lives in his hometown of Omaha with his wife, Sarah, and three children.


Yanqi Xu is amazing. Working 100 hour weeks is beyond dedication to the truth. Our “Governor” loves hiding from the truth. I do not trust him at all. I hope Yanqi keeps uncovering stories in Nebraska for a LONG time.

This sickens me. That was a horrible thing to say. So now the governor can generalize an entire population? The words that come to mind are not fit to print.

Jean Douchey:
You are exactly correct, but Nebraska’s governor really wants NOT to discuss his hog-farm operations. He’s desperate enough to behave very badly while he tries to deflect attention from his failure to follow the law in his hog farms.

Maybe he hopes this thing will blow over, or he’ll have to apologize to the young, and very capable reporter.

So he’s attracting attention because of his bad manners, while his hog-farm failures go unnoticed. My visits to Nebraska brought me into contact with dozens of honorable, straight-talking Nebraskans who look you in the eye when they speak. Why is your governor different?

Another good “example from real life” for my critical thinking class when we discuss common fallacies like ad hominem, red herrings, etc. I’m sure Yanqi, being an actual adult in the room, recognizes that when people respond like this, you know you’ve done good work. Keep it up.

Thank you, Flatwater and Yanqui Xu. Your work does indeed speak for itself. As Pillen’s words speak for his despicability.

Thank you for writing this piece. Yanqi Xu is a remarkable reporter. Nebraska is lucky to have a skilled reporter like her.

Thank you for writing this. The governor’s attack was despicable and a poor (but telling) reflection on Nebraska.

This is another example of the lack of transparency and accountability of this Governor and his Administrative Team. Our family has experienced this model of leadership Governor Pillen advocates in regards to the failure of DHHS to protect our child’s closed adoption records. A Tort was filed regarding this matter and it progressed to a status of “Final” when we requested the meaning of “Final” we were told this was a clerical error and within 12 hours the Nebraska Risk Management website changed taking away the option of citizens to track the progress of their Torts against the State of Nebraska. Calling out Yangi Xu for her country of birth, and questioning her integrity is ironic and telling of the lack of accountability this Governor promotes and exemplifies.

Great journalism! Mr. Pillen’s remarks make him sound ignorant and prejudiced. We deserve more from our governor…he throws up MAGA smokescreens to deflect attention from FFP stories.

You read my mind. That is exactly what I thought. Deny, deny, deny and say something outrageously offensive. That is the playbook.

Outstanding work for bringing these things to light. One can only hope that more people will take this seriously and do the right thing.

I am saddened, yet not surprised. Our governor is a racist bigot. He is a homophobe. He is a misogynist. He believes the wealthy are more important that the poor, and he believes his religious views should be law for everyone. Cheers to your great reporting, and I’m sorry our governor doesn’t understand compassion or Nebraska nice.

Thanks for bringing this story to our attention. Yanqui Xu is doing tremendous work and I am so glad you were able to let us know of her incredible background. Keep up the good work.

Governor Pillen’s statements need to be condemned and he should be held accountable to the harm his hog farm waste is causing.
We can’t let this go any more than we can let his lack of transparency in doing the states business. Nebraskans deserve better. Yanqui Xu deserves better. Thank you to her and you.

Thank you for defending her, taking the time to make sure she as not hurt by your defense and for hiring her. I find her stories. Wry well researched and written amazingly well. Thank you FFP for stories that expose the truth! Yanqi Xu you are amazing!

Great journalism, Yanqi! I am glad you are doing this work. Poisoning the environment is one of the most urgent issues at any time and any place — and one of the greatest arguments for why we need local, daily, independent journalism! Furthermore, what a great example by Matt Wynn in how leaders can and should stand up for their team members! Long live independent journalism and long live FFP!!!

I am saddened and embarrassed as well at the governor’s unwillingness to respond to questions submitted to him. But, heck didn’t we see that coming in his campaign when he refused to debate? Is it truth he fears?

Hear hear! Thank you for this robust defense of a brilliant reporter. Pillen’s remarks were disgusting, just like his farms.

Thank you for writing this commentary and supporting Yanqi — she’s a terrific journalist and a valuable asset for your town, for Nebraska and the U.S. I know her because she’s part of the 2023-2024 class of the Poynter Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship (I’m serve as an advisor for the fellowship) and I applaud the Flatwater Free Press for allowing her to be part of the PKMJF. We need more journalists like her — and editors like you — across the country.

I’d like to add my thank you to all of the other appreciative comments that you have received. Thank you Yanqi Xu, thank you Matt Wynn and thank you Flatwater Free Press.

High nitrate levels are a serious risk to Nebraska’s citizens. How telling that Governor Pollen is completely unconcerned about his constituents and thinks an ad hominem attack against Yanqi Xu is the appropriate response to this important information. For shame.

Comments like the one our Governor made is to attack Yanqi Xu rather than accepting criticism and or blame for his own actions: When someone deflects, they are trying to feel less guilty, avoid negative consequences, and put the blame on others. He uses deflection because she exposes the truth.

My question is this: How did he know about the author but not the story?

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?”
I think his comment was ignorant.

A huge thank you to you, Yanqi, and the FFP, from another local reporter in California. You are the best of the best.

Gov. Pillen didn’t read the story—and wasn’t ashamed to say so. So, so disappointing.

In providing Ms. Xu’s short journalism biography, you failed to mention that in 2016
she was an editorial intern for CCTV News, controlled by the “Central Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party.” That same year, Ms. Xu served as a social media intern for Al Jazeera (Bejing Bureau), known for its slanted journalism and anti-Israel bias. While these facts may not be relevant to this particular article, it does give one some context as to the reporter’s possible political biases.

Except that’s not what Pillen said. Defending his farms or providing evidence that the environmental study is incorrect would be a mature, responsible way to respond. Unfortunately that’s not how our governor rolls.

If I go by a very rudimentary math analysis, a safe nitrate level in my drinking water should be no more than 10 parts per million. Quoting the article, “One farm recorded a reading of 445 parts per million. ” Now that’s insane. It’s hard to argue with this math whether this reporter used to intern for Al Jazeera or not.

And yeah I can see why the governor may want to sweep it under the rug. Oh but she’s from China. Shame that it’s his only response.

Embarrassed Nebraskan covers my part of this issue. Additionally my hope is that Yanqi is reassured of her welcome, our appreciation and our support by the comments here.

I am beyond words at the Governor’s response. We are the parents of two daughters adopted from China (both now successful graduates from college). Are they also suspect since they come from “communist China”? For the Governor (the Governor of our state!) to say he’s not going to read the article but then attacks her personally on the basis of her nationality/ethnicity gives new meaning to “Nebraska, it’s not for everyone “! Our daughters have both moved to Minnesota where they have good jobs and are welcomed! As a life long 4th generation Nebraskan I am saddened by what has happened to our state,

Very ironic considering how welcoming Nebraska is. Didn’t the Chinese help build the railroad as well? This comment is purely racist

Please, consider the source. Pillen is ignorant. As many other politicians he thinks the laws don’t apply to him! Nitrates in drinking water is a VERY SERIOUS problem. Pillen must address his lack of compliance in regards to nitrate levels at his hog facilities. Meaning, rule of law applies to Pillen as well. Well done Yanqi Xu! We need more like you! Keep up the good work! Tell us more!

Never heard of the Flatwater Free Press, but you and your reporter’s must be doing something right if people within your state in positions of power are attacking you and your work. Keep on keeping on.

Thank you, Matt and Yanqi. There is a good reason so many of us read FFP faithfully. Personally, Yanqi’s articles have been and continue to be some of the best journalistic material I have ever read. Words are like toothpaste…once you squeeze them out you can’t put them back. Hold your head high Yanqi. If the governor wants to look you in the eye he will need a step ladder.

Our governor is the biggest hurdle in the state to lowering nitrates in our drinking water. Every polluter in this state knows Pillen will protect them. Even our government agencies know they don’t have to abide by laws that demand they disclose information about pollution testing done or not done at these sights. Keep up the good reporting and work. Nebraska needs reporters like Yangi.

Why is the Flatwater Free Press attacking the Governor for telling the truth? Ms. Xu has admitted to being from communist China? Didn’t Ms. Xu leave China because of the censorship the Communist Party imposes on reporters? We may rightly be unhappy about any possible pollution from the Governors farms, and we can fairly be unhappy about the Governor refusing to address the issues in Ms. Xu’s reporting, but it is un-American to attack the Governor for merely re-stating certifiably true facts. These attacks on the Governor are malicious.

You can’t challenge ffp or Ne X, they’re the bomb, they OWH the OWH without football stories. We need more Don Bacons

I’ve not heard of your publication before this (I live outside of Boston) but I am majorly impressed! I will be looking to follow you on Twitter, oops, “X”, and most particularly the stellar Yanqui Xu!! Keep it up, hold his feet to the fire until state agencies decide to look into this BECAUSE THEY SHOULD! A terrific defense of her work, Flatwaterfreepress! Kudos all around! And make sure this story doesn’t die as the election for 2024 ramps up!! People really forget, make sure they DON’T!

As seemingly astonishing as this entire story seems, it, unfortunately, is not even a mild surprise. Without any mention of one side or the other, the response by Gov. Pillen is exactly what we have learned to expect from our elected officials. Do something, get caught, and deflect truth with absurd statements and/or non truths. The country these days has degraded to believing a politician who lies the loudest and longest. I had training as a journalist some 60 years ago. I very much regretted not following that path, but in keeping with the current climate of truth seeking, I feel I would now be deflecting comments connecting me to Al Capone (something done to my dad). Unfortunately i no longer harbor those regrets. Hold onto the good fight!

I’m a 69yr old lifelong Nebraskan and I am totally embarrassed and ashamed by Pillen’s racist BS. I’m also mad as hell. Pillen’s pig farms are polluting our land and water and his racism will soon pollute our souls.

Our governor is not representing the best interests of our state. I’m ashamed of his ignorant comments. I’m also very proud of Yanqi Xu and the team at Flatwater Free Press. They are doing their job to keep us informed. When our state leader resorts to dismissal and white national rhetoric, it shows a weakness of character that all Nebraskans should abhor. He apparently couldn’t think of anything intelligent to say and his mask of civility slipped. For some reason he seems to think that we all agree with him. Clearly you got to him. Congratulations! I’m proud of you.

Some of the best insight we’ll ever get in this country is from “outsiders” (think de Tocqueville, for starters) who observe, take note and write. More so individuals from repressed societies that discover the beacon of our freedoms and First Amendment. It’s also why major news outlets have foreign correspondents all over the world – perspective.

This so-called governor of Nebraska is an embarrassment, though I know it’s likely the vast majority of the state will be in his corner even if it means the degrading of their own health and livelihoods. Always need to add another check in the “W” column.

It appears prejudicial and in my opinion a very narrow minded statement from an elected official. Makes for an embarrassing remark. Hmmm, got something to hide Gov?.

Let me apologize for the governor of the state of Nebraska. I could hardly believe his comments. I’m embarrassed & sickened by them. I can honestly tell you Nebraskan . Your article hit a nerve. We had hogs for over 40 years, I understand what your article & the impression it left.
I am very glad your paper is standing by your side. Please ignore this hog manger comments and continue to move forward .

I AM always amazed that reporters can be brave and then feel the wrath of people in power. The power person used prejudice & untruth to silence her. My reaction was to compliment Yanqi and pray for her. Her diligence, hard work, her education and determination make me very happy/proud for her!

Great reporting by Yangqi Xu, I’m glad you’re standing up for her but sad it had to come to this. What an embarrassment of a governor.

I stumbled upon this story by accident. Listened to a WOWTV clip of Pillen’s comment. I was appalled I used it in my critical reasoning a few hours after I listened to it. I played it in class. Two points resonated with us, not having read the piece that he was responding to and attacking the messenger instead of the message.yikes. when my students begin the section on informal fallacies, we will return to the audio clip. Thanks Yanqi Xu.
I have longed to get to your hometown in Chine. I lectured at South China Normal University years ago.

“If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell.”
– Carl Sandburg

Thank you for supporting this incredible reporter. Yanqi Xu, thank you for your work in Nebraska. We need you, and we need the Flatwater Free Press.

Mr. Pillen’s comments about , about about this reporter , or any other person that uncovers ANY wrong doing, by anyone in office or not is wrong ! This reporter is going to depths in order to uncover & report to the public the contamination of our water supplies.
The State of Ne. has covered up this situation for years ! Just one more reason why we have decided to move to a different state. Between the property taxes & the coverups, we no longer want to call Nebraska our home. The real deciding factor for us was the Alten mess, those people in Mead put up with that horrific mess for YEARS !! The DEQ at that time, just shoved the problem & the people under the floor boards. Now, the State of Ne. decided that the DEQ was so good at their job, that the state gave them your drinking water !!! The knew name is the DEE. Dept. of environment & energy. I’ll bet your water is safe with that outfit !! NOT !!

I emailed Pillen yesterday. Most of what I told him can’t be reprinted here. His comments on the great work done by Yanqui Xu were just appalling as well as embarrassing. Let’s face it: Pillen is one of those guys who feels that he has the right to pollute by virtue of his wealth. This state is full of such people.

If Governor Pillen didn’t need to read Yanqi’s article, it’s likely he already knew about the illegal levels of nitrogen/nitrates on his hog farms. His remark about Miss Xu, like his farming practices, demands voters (and appropriate government agencies) to respond with fact-based, appropriate, informed, fair and reasonable investigation and action. I’m proud to be a Nebraskan; but not proud of our Governor’s words or actions.

Isn’t it interesting that the Governor sells a lot of his companies’ products to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, which Wikipedia describes as “a unitary Marxist-Leninist one-party socialist republic”. Does he disparage them the way he disparages Yanqi Xu?

As a former Nebraskan who spent 40 years in Alaska and now
lives in Colorado, I love reading The Flatwater Free Press. Your reporters are professional and do superb stories.

Nebraska, however, needs a new governor. Kick this one to the curb,


-The rare instance get a news alert for the Home State “Nebraska” and “Asian”, I’m blindsided with the Governor taking a personal public cheap shot against a local journalist for her ethnic background. And now doubling down by dismissing concern, let alone refusing contrition.
Journalists, along with Politicians, Business and Government Agencies are not above scrutiny and questions. Agricultural runoff involving animal waste, fertilizer and local water supply is a legitimate concern. If you don’t think so, then drink the locally sourced water in public.
And for those who think this is some partisan attack: I’m Chinese from Taiwan, a proud Nebraska Native from Grand Island and Omaha, University of Nebraska Omaha honors graduate, and 1996 College Republican Chapter Chairman. Definitely not CCP.

Thank you for reporting this. How embarrassing to have a Governor that does not read articles concerning him and then making this nasty remark about the reporter for her ethnic back ground. Shameful to be this arrogant!

Thank you Yanqi Xu for this very important piece that you wrote on the nitrate levels. Thank you Matt for standing up for her in the article you wrote and giving us all an opportunity to get to know Yanqi Xu and the wonderful, talented human being she is. Shame on KFAB for allowing this comment made by Pillen to stand uncontested. I am saddened by Pillen’s comments and also for his lack of having the class to apologize for the terrible mistake he made.

I am Japanese who happened to find this story. I am frustrated Japanese government getting along this kind of politician. I wish people of Nebraska will have better governor. (As well I wish better government for us Japanese but that is another story)
I am not a person who agree with CCP for the record, This is not the problem here. A governor of Nebraska was offended his farm pollution revealed, personally attacked hard-working reporter. Keep your good work, Ms Xu!

Because an article like this will, of course, bring out the bigots. Already enough of that in our society without being forced to carry it on their own site…

Thank you for your thorough coverage of this story of interest. I read of the gov’s prejudiced comments on a family visit to Omaha days ago in the World Herald and, like you, l was embarassed. But thanks to your good journalism, l got the background on Ms. Xu l craved, and left feeling glad my hometown news was in good hands. Superior, engaging and heartwarming work. Thank you, Mr. Wynn. This made my morning in Detroit feel pretty grand.

Pillen should be embarrassed (for many reasons) but especially for disparaging a journalist because of her origin. He touts Nebraska as the most welcoming state for immigrants and business, then says something like that. Pure ignorance. He is just trying to deflect the fact that his hog operations are devastating to the areas where they are located. I happen to live in one of them. Keep up the good work.



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