Exposed for Pig Pollution, Nebraska Governor Slimes the Reporter

November 1, 2023
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When a reporter documented pollution from Gov. Pillen’s family hog farms, he responded by dismissing her on the basis of her nationality. Image: Flatwater Free Press.

WatchDog Opinion: Exposed for Pig Pollution, Nebraska Governor Slimes the Reporter

By Joseph A. Davis

The free press outrage of the month was uttered by Republican Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen, when he labeled a Chinese-born journalist a “Communist” for exposing how Pillen’s own pig farms were befouling the state’s water.

If he wanted to suppress the story, it didn’t work.

In America, sometimes, hatred and lies are as common as the air we breathe and the water we drink. But in much of America, despite that, the freedom to publish is still alive.

Reporter Yanqi Xu wrote a story for the Flatwater Free Press documenting how 16 hog farms operated by Pillen Family Farms had wells exceeding safe water quality standards for nitrates.

Four days later, Gov. Pillen called in to Omaha radio station KFAB from a trade mission in Japan. He bragged about how “welcoming” Nebraska is for immigrants. Then he was asked about the pig poop story.


‘The author is from communist China.

What more do you need to know?’

             — Gov. Jim Pillen of Nebraska


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

Boom. National coverage (may require subscription). On Oct. 18, the New York Times reported it, then by Oct. 19, NBC News and numerous other outlets had taken up the story.


What is the Flatwater Free Press?

The term “free press” in the newspaper’s name is not accidental. That’s what it believes in. “Flatwater” is a translation of the Indigenous name for the Platte River, which crosses the whole state of Nebraska.

Its founder, Matt Wynn, calls it “the first independent, nonprofit, collaborative, purely investigative and enterprise news outlet serving the entire state.” Wynn directs the Nebraska Journalism Trust, which funds the paper.

Xu’s story was high-impact. Here’s the Sept. 7 story itself. Actually, she had started publishing a bigger package (“Pigs and Power”) back in August, in which she investigated pollution and impunity from big ag in the state. Investigate Midwest (reporter Sky Chadde) collaborated on this series.

The whole thing was extensively documented with public records: rock-solid classic investigative journalism. Find other parts of the story here and here.


Journalists rally

After the governor’s remarks, the Flatwater Free Press stood staunchly by Xu’s story. In addition, the Asian American Journalists Association issued a strong statement of support and solidarity as soon as the ruckus broke out.

“Journalists play an indispensable role in holding power to account and informing the public,” AAJA said. “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.”

The Society of Environmental Journalists has also taken an official position.


‘Such attacks on individual reporters

— especially those which may fan the

flames of xenophobia, discrimination

and racism — are unacceptable.’

      — Luke Runyon, president of SEJ


“SEJ believes that such attacks on individual reporters — especially those which may fan the flames of xenophobia, discrimination and racism — are unacceptable,” wrote Luke Runyon, president of SEJ.


Polluting public discussion

The WatchDog is, as they say, shocked but not surprised.

Let’s look back on some earlier chapters. Calling journalists names did not originate with Pillen. We could go back to disgraced Vice President Spiro Agnew (who called them “nattering nabobs of negativism”).

But let’s just settle for former President Donald Trump. He called the news media the “enemy of the people.” The phrase was used (in their own languages) by Stalin and Mao. They were Communists. And totalitarians.

Trump’s name-calling was echoed by his political appointees in the press office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. WatchDog reported it. We will not name again the EPA press officers who did that. There were more than a few; at a deeper level, it was really Trump talking.

In Trump world, it never mattered much what minority group he was insulting and “othering.” Muslims. Latinos. Blacks. Indigenous people. We won’t go on. The essence of Trumpism (or his base) is today pretty much recognized as white supremacy.

In the United States, to paraphrase Lincoln, you can still fool roughly 37 percent of the people all of the time. We, as journalists, have to deal with it. By telling the truth anyway.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 8, No. 39. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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