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Pillen addresses national criticism for comments

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Zach Wendling

Nebraska Examiner

LINCOLN — Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen on Friday addressed for the first time national criticism he has faced after dismissing a Chinese reporter’s work because of her nationality.

Pillen told reporters following an event in Lincoln that he is “100% focused on being the governor of all Nebraskans” and would not get involved in a “political sideshow.” He did not address calls for him to apologize and declined to speak more specificity.

“I’m not going to talk about any reporter. I’m not going to talk about any sideshows,” Pillen said. “I’m focused on my job.”

The national criticism came after Pillen, during an appearance with 1110 KFAB radio in September, responded to a question about Flatwater Free Press investigative reporter Yanqi Xu. Xu reported that 16 hog farms within Pillen Family Farms — owned by the governor’s family — recorded nitrate levels more than five times higher than what is considered safe to drink.

“Number one, I didn’t read it. And I won’t,” Pillen told KFAB’s Gary Sadlemyer. “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?”

‘The proof’s in the pudding’

Matt Wynn, executive director of the Nebraska Journalism Trust, which launched and funds Flatwater, fired back at Pillen on Tuesday, describing his comments as infuriating and dead wrong.

“Had Governor Pillen spoken to the facts Yanqi found, I wouldn’t be writing this now,” Wynn wrote. “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.”

Wynn told the Nebraska Examiner on Friday, after listening to a recording of the exchange between reporters and Pillen, that he is heartened the governor mentions immigrants and glad that he takes pride in that chapter of Nebraska’s history.

“The opportunity is still there for an apology,” Wynn added. “I think it is the right and decent thing to do.”

Pillen said that across the state immigrants have been involved in agriculture, and he pointed to Japanese immigrants coming to build railroads 120 years ago in Nebraska. Over a century ago, more than 1,000 Japanese immigrants worked on the railroads and in sugar beet fields.

Research indicates Chinese immigrants made up most of the workforce in building railroads nationwide.

“The proof’s in the pudding,” Pillen said. “People on the sideshows can make any kind of comments they want.”

Comments blasted as xenophobic, racist

During his appearance with KFAB, Pillen said Nebraska is the “most welcoming” state in the nation. National and local groups have since said that notion is undermined by Pillen’s remarks.

Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., and chair of the Congressional Pacific American Caucus, told NBC News that Pillen should apologize for a “baseless xenophobic attack.” Norman Chen, CEO of The Asian American Foundation in San Francisco, described the comments as “not only appalling but also outright racist.”

Chen noted Asian Americans are the fastest-growing minority group in Nebraska, at about 3.5%, and said Pillen should apologize and work with local AAPI leaders to understand the implications of his remarks and rebuild trust within the community.

“Anti-Chinese rhetoric skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic and continues to have dangerous consequences for the safety of the whole Asian American community,” Chen said. “For the Governor, the highest leader in the state, to publicly degrade a journalist based on her ethnicity fosters an environment where AAPIs cannot feel safe and do not feel like they belong.”

Xu grew up in Guangzhou, China, and left for Beijing to study English and international journalism. She came to the United States in 2017 for a master’s degree, and she has reported in four states and Washington, D.C. This includes North Carolina Policy Watch (now NC Newsline), part of the States Newsroom network of nonprofit news outlets, which include the Nebraska Examiner.

Xu has received support from numerous journalists and organizations nationwide, including the Asian American Journalists Association. She has described the support as emotional and told NBC News this week that it’s important to speak up, though it can be hard at first as it makes someone the center of the story.

“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?” Xu told NBC. “But I think for me, I found myself coming back to this point of: If I don’t do it, who would?”

‘My comments were my comments’

When asked Friday by the Nebraska Examiner what policies he would support to curb nitrate levels and promote safe water, Pillen said he is working to develop policy and plans to have a master plan for improvement. Education on how nitrates get into Nebraska water will also be involved.

“Water is a gift, just like God’s grace is a gift,” Pillen said.

Pillen said he is focused on kids, taxes, agriculture and values. He declined to comment further on whether Nebraskans deserved to hear more about the controversy with Flatwater, whether he stood by his initial comments or what his comments mean for other minorities in the state.

“My comments were my comments,” Pillen said. “That’s what I have to say about it.”

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