Reporter's Notebook: How one journalist's question in Beijing led to calls for a US investigation


This article is part of a "Reporter's Notebook" series, where CNBC journalists submit tales and observations from the field.

Last week was a big one for news: Trump tariffs, fears of a trade war. The president putting the kibosh on what could have been the mother of all tech deals — Broadcom buying Qualcomm, for $117 billion. Rex Tillerson getting fired, Mike Pompeo taking over.

China likely observed all this with a mixture of bewilderment, bemusement — and perhaps anxiety.

But for many Chinese on social media, there was a timely distraction. It all started with a video that quickly went viral. And now that video has sparked an online petition in the United States to investigate a California news outlet's links to Beijing.

Two Chinese television reporters at a press conference were caught on someone's cellphone.

In the video, the first reporter asks what appears to be a desperately long question. The second reporter, finally unable to take it anymore, turns her head to see who is hogging so much time.

Then the second reporter very obviously rolls her eyes at the question.

If you've been to enough press conferences, you've seen this happen before. Many times. Except this time, it went very public.

Initial reaction on Chinese social media — before the video was censored by Beijing — was along the lines of, "THAT was SO rude."

A Chinese news outlet in America

It's not surprising that an eye roll would be considered especially rude in China, where subversion is a necessarily subtle, disguised and veiled art form. It's expected that if you want to slice and dice somebody, you do so with a smile and grace. You just can't be so obvious about it.

Then it got more interesting. Quick trolling by China's netizens uncovered the fact that the first reporter (Reporter with the Interminably Long Question, henceforth RILQ) was from an outfit called AMTV, or American Multimedia Television.

Ah, no wonder, China's netizens decided: a pesky foreign reporter.

But wait, it gets even better than that.

The "American" reporter in question is, in fact, a Chinese national. And AMTV is American in name only. It boasts on its website of its links to China's state-controlled CCTV.

In China, CCTV carries AMTV programming, which is considered obsequiously patriotic.

A reporter rolls her eyes, a video goes viral, and the next thing you know, an "American" reporter's true role is laid bare on the internet.

Last week, a plea for signatures began circulating on the White House petition website, asking the administration to investigate AMTV: "Based on the Foreign Agents Registration Act, we ask to investigate its fund sources and cooperation with the (Communist Party of China) and shut it down if it is found to have violated the law."

AMTV didn't respond when CNBC sent it an email asking for a comment on the petition.

The petition had only about 1,200 as of Tuesday, well short of the 100,000 it needs by April 13.

But the cat's out of the bag, as they say. And at the end of the day, it could be Beijing that's left with the most egg on its face.