Lisa Ling hits her stride as one of America's pre-eminent cultural codifiers and investigative journalists.
Aside from her TV work, in 2010 Ling co-founded the website secretsocietyofwomen.com, a forum where women can share their problems anonymously.
“Is Kramerbooks still open in Dupont?” Lisa Ling asks as we settle into our interview. “It’s one of my favorite places for food and books.” Ling is no stranger to Washington—she lived here when she was a correspondent for National Geographic, and her husband’s family owns one of Northern Virginia’s top Korean restaurants, Woo Lae Oak. “I don’t get to DC as often as I would like but I do prefer it to New York,” she adds. Her political interests might have something to do with that. “I don’t want to run for office, but I also don’t want to get to a place in my career where it’s too late to pursue my passions,” she thoughtfully intones when considering the prospect of an additional career as a politician.
Ling has been pursuing her passions and “immersing herself in the field,” as she is fond of saying, her whole career. Before #MeToo. Before 113 women were elected to serve in the 116th Congress of the United States. Before Hillary Clinton aspired to crack the “highest, hardest ceiling.” Before Kevin Kwan’s groundbreaking book series and movie Crazy Rich Asians dominated the cultural landscape. Before all this advancement, Lisa Ling rose to stardom as co-host of ABC’s The View.
The show broke ground for bringing multiple generations of women together to talk about issues in a format previously unseen on network television. It was all Oprah-esque back then—touchy-feely with content that prioritized lifestyle-related matters over strong opinions on topics from financial markets to political campaigns. Ling joined the panel in the second year of the show as its youngest host. As an American with Chinese parents, she also carried the torch as a trailblazing Asian-American female. Then, as now, Ling spoke her mind with clarity and conviction and stimulated debate, helping to catapult The View into must-watch status.
After The View, Ling joined the newly formed OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network. “I loved OWN and Oprah,” she says. Our America with Lisa Ling offered her an exciting new platform, but Ling soon realized it wasn’t satisfying her anthropological and documentarian proclivities. “The network was moving toward scripted entertainment,” she explains.
Her current project, CNN’s This Is Life With Lisa Ling, merges all of Ling’s talents, interests and experiences. The show, now in its fifth season, deep dives into different American subcultures. It currently ranks No. 1 among the coveted 25-to-54-year-old demographic across all cable news in its time period and won a Gracie Award in 2017 for Outstanding Non-Fiction or Reality Show. Ling is on record stating that one of the more emotional episodes for her was “Fatherless Town” in season two, which followed inmates participating in the Virginia Family and Fatherhood Initiative that aims to reconnect incarcerated dads with their daughters.
“I’m appreciative as an Asian woman to have a show in primetime,” says Ling, who credits CNN President Jeff Zucker for his support. “He is really smart and has a solid vision. He truly has a hard job, particularly given the scrutiny [under the current administration].” She is certainly not shy about expressing her views on current events. On Jim Acosta and his battle to regain his White House credentials, she states, “What he does is so important.” On #MeToo: “Women are belittled and objectified.” About President Trump: “Total lack of leadership.” And even Hillary Clinton: “She came to symbolize the status quo when there was a movement to have fresh blood.”
While mainstream media networks have borne the brunt of the president’s ongoing attack on news, CNN viewership has actually increased during Ling’s tenure, from 400,000 pre-Trump to more than 700,000 now. “Women are galvanized by the Trump presidency,” she says. The popularity of her show, she feels, is connected to the political climate. “There is so much fear and vitriol and hostility in the world, and our show is the opposite,” she states.
“CNN gives me a lot of autonomy to create these storylines,” she notes of the network. That means Ling travels—a lot. It’s the only way to do the kind of immersive, anthropological study misunderstood communities necessitate. “It kills me to be gone,” says Ling, explaining that her work involves leaving her husband and two daughters to travel eight to 10 days a month, five months a year, to film the eight episodes of each season.
In the investigative series This Is Life With Lisa Ling, award-winning journalist and former The View host Lisa Ling takes viewers on a gritty, authentic and emotional journey to the far corners of America.
Ultimately, though, it is Ling’s ability to give voice and value to under-represented and under-reported Americans, combined with the production quality of Amy Bucher and Brooklyn-based Part2 Pictures, that has led to the show’s success. “There are so many groups who are misunderstood. I want us to look at everyday people and be sensitive,” Ling says. “I want to penetrate worlds closed off to the media and give to the world a quality story which isn’t sensational.”
When Ling speaks, she does so through the lessons of the stories of those she’s met. She’s a seasoned journalist with an authentic voice and a story to tell—she just prefers that it belong to someone else.
PHOTOS BY JEREMY FREEMAN & RAUL ROMO