A reporter of Chinese descent is speaking out, weeks after Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen dismissed her article on his company, Pillen Family Farms, because “the author is from Communist China.”
Yanqi Xu, 27, who is an immigrant from China and reports for the independent outlet Flatwater Free Press, told NBC News that Pillen’s comments were a form of “bias.” Pillen, a Republican, had made the remarks on Omaha radio station KFAB in September, after he was asked to respond to her article that found high levels of nitrate on his hog farms.
“Number 1, I didn’t read it. And I won’t,” Pillen said on the air about Xu’s article. “Number 2, all you got to do is look at the author. The author is from Communist China. What more do you need to know?”
This week — with Xu’s blessing and after consulting with immigration lawyers to ensure her visa status wouldn’t be compromised — Matt Wynn, executive director of the Nebraska Journalism Trust, which launched the Flatwater Free Press, published a column in her defense.
“Yanqi has been in the United States since 2017. … 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,” Wynn wrote. “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 did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment.
Xu, who said she was grateful that her employer stood with her, added that Pillen’s words potentially fit into a narrative of “othering people of Chinese descent.”
“I’m still trying to wrap my head around this,” she said. “I can definitely see the bias there.”
While she needed time to digest the comments, she said that as a journalist, she wanted to speak out to hold the governor accountable.
“I think it’s important to speak up and it can be really, really hard at first because in some ways, it made you the center of the story,” Xu said. “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? But I think for me, I found myself coming back to this point of: If I don’t do it, who would?”
The Asian American Journalists Association also released a statement on Wednesday, supporting Xu.
“The Asian American Journalists Association stands with Yanqi Xu, the Flatwater Free Press journalist who was the target of remarks that attempted to dismiss her reporting because of her country of origin,” the statement read. “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.”
And Rep. Judy Chu, chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, condemned Pillen, describing his remarks as a “baseless xenophobic attack.” She called on him to apologize to Xu and her outlet.
“Failing to do so only contributes to more hostility and suspicion of people from China and Asian Americans broadly,” Chu, D-Calif., said.
Xu recounted that on the day of the radio interview, she was in the field, working on more reporting on Pillen’s hog farms. When she returned to the newsroom the next day, her editor informed her of the governor’s interview. At first, she was hopeful that Pillen responded to the content of her article, explaining that her past attempts to obtain a response had not been successful.
“My immediate reaction was, ‘Oh, wow, he’s finally responding,’” Xu said. “But I never expected his only actual comment was about who I am and where I’m from. So I was pretty shocked.”
Xu said she hadn’t encountered any similarly biased comments in her two years as a working journalist in Nebraska.
“I don’t think that your country of origin defines you,” Xu said. “When I’m interacting with people, Nebraskans are actually pretty welcoming. And in a lot of ways I felt that I do have a community here.”
Her organization’s column, Xu said, sent a critical message to the community.
“I think it’s also super important for other Chinese Americans or other Chinese immigrants to understand that our newsroom thinks it’s not right for the governor to say something like this,” Xu said.
Wynn similarly told NBC News that he was in disbelief after hearing Pillen’s comments, but added that he was proud to defend journalism and journalists.
“Once we knew she was legally safe, there was no doubt we had to respond,” he said.
Since the radio interview, Xu said she’s received an outpouring of support from her peers and others.
“I’ve heard so many positive comments and responses already, just from today. And I think that would definitely keep me going,” she said.
Source: NBC News