Lisa Ling’s TV Adventures
From Channel One to CNN, Lisa Ling has made her way into being one of the world’s most respected journalists.
When the many tourists visiting the beautiful coastal city of Santa Monica walk around and get a few blocks away from the ocean, they may notice a very contemporary, even futuristic-looking house matched by a desert-style garden. But probably only a few would imagine that this architect-designed abode is home to world famous CNN reporter/host Lisa Ling. Born 43 years ago in California, the daughter of a Taiwanese immigrant mom and a Mainland Chinese immigrant father, Lisa studied at the University of Southern California all the while starting as a reporter at Channel One News at the tender age of 18 years old (coincidentally the same program where star news anchor Anderson Cooper started out. “It was a show seen in schools across the country,” she reminisces. “It’s only then that I realized I wanted to be a real journalist, not just someone seen on TV,” she adds. Lisa stayed on the shot for 7 years. “The reason why that the experience on that show was so impactful for me was that it sent me to cover stories all over the world,” she explains. “I started covering stories in Afghanistan, in Iran, Cambodia, India, China, Vietnam in my early twenties. My desire went from just wanting to be on TV to have a better life to wanting to tell stories and be in the world.”
Since her sister Laura is also a journalist, I wonder if there is something in the family, perhaps their education, or a long-lost relative that once came back and spark their interest. “Not really,” she admits. “It sounds funny, but when I was a kid, I wanted to be on TV.” Another factor was that TV was always on in the Ling household. “It sounds funny, but when I was a kid, I wanted to be on TV,” she ads. “My parents were divorced when I was really young. I honestly thought ‘if I can get on TV, maybe one day I can have a better life.’” So does this mean she encourages young kids to watch a lot of TV? “I actually learned a lot from watching TV, surprisingly. This whole idea of preventing kids from watching TV, I don’t necessarily agree with that.”
This first experience working on television had a great influence on the rest of Lisa Ling’s career. “The reason why that the experience on that show was so impactful for me was that it sent me to cover stories all over the world,” she reflects. “I started covering stories in Afghanistan, in Iran, Cambodia, India, China, Vietnam in my early twenties. My desire went from just wanting to be on TV to have a better life to wanting to tell stories and be in the world.” Thinking back to her time working with Anderson Cooper, she adds: “interestingly, we still use the same style we developed at Channel One News today at CNN.” As interesting as the show was, Channel One News was only shown in schools. Lisa Ling’s big break would come with her next job: co-host of the massively successful midday talk show “The View,” when she was 26 years old.
“That was a very different kind of experience for me, because even though it was the first mainstream show I did, I’d been a journalist for seven years prior,” she explains. “So it was very different. You were successful the more you shared about yourself.” Did her background prepare her for this? “As a young Chinese-American girl, I was never forthcoming about personal stuff. It was very challenging for me. Especially doing this show in front of a live audience, where you’re trying to generate a reaction. It’s something I had never learned to do, trying to get laughs from the audience. So it was a tremendous learning experience for me, I was totally out of my element.” Knowing that her current show is so different, did she learn anything from her experience at “The View?” “I learned so much about how to generate a reaction from an audience. I learned skills at “The View” that I certainly incorporate into what I do now.”
But did she ever have to invent things to “keep it interesting?” “I was living kind of a “Hollywood” lifestyle. I was on this national talk show, I was invited to every party, I was like a young “it girl.” I was only 26 years old in New York City. But sometimes I had to talk about my friends’ lives. I would say “I have this friend, who has been dating this guy… but who is interested in this other guy…” That got me in trouble a few times! Some friends would tell me “please don’t share my private stories on national television!”
After hosting the View, how was Lisa going to top this achievement? There was only one person to go to: Oprah. “Everyone wants to be Oprah,” she exclaims with a passion so authentic you know it cannot have been faked. “Oprah was incredible. She and the executives at the “Oprah Winfrey Show” gave me opportunities that I would’ve never been able to get anywhere else. In fact had I stayed in the news business, I don’t think I would’ve had so many opportunities to cover international stories. Oprah really supported me, was a champion of mine.” Lisa Ling began as a field reporter for the Oprah Winfrey Show, going back to her journalism roots, at Oprah’s suggestion.
“What she liked about me was that she said my reporting was very authentic. My stories were very important to me and became part of who I was. I worked on the show for many years, and then they gave me the opportunity to have my own show when Oprah started her network OWN.” Although seen as a big risk at the time, the Oprah Winfrey Network was again a big success. How was it working day to day with her? “It was always surreal, and it never ceased from being surreal, because there’s no bigger name in the business than Oprah. She’s at the pinnacle of success in this business. To be able to work for her and be supported by her was just incredible. It was the greatest honor of my life to have someone like Oprah want me to be part of her world.”
Everyone has always wondered what it would be like to have Oprah as a boss. Is she tough? Patient? “She was very focused,” remembers Ling. “When she talked to me, it’s almost like she looked right through me. She wants to know what you bring to the table and why. She could be very intense, but in the right way.” But did she ever get angry? “She was never mean to me, I don’t have any bad stories with her. She just believed in me. I think that every person that worked for her, she felt the same way about. She felt a lot of confidence for the people she took on to work for her. She had high expectations of everyone.”
Maybe the biggest change in Lisa Ling’s life happened when she became a mother. But that didn’t slow down her career. She has a few secret recipes on how to achieve the perfect work/life balance. “I have amazing support,” she confesses. “My mom is here every day. My husband’s mom is here every day.” Many parents around the world would be jealous hearing both grandmas come every day to help with the kids. The timing of each visit is perfectly organized. “My mother-in-law comes over in the evenings, whether I’m here or not. They all moved here because we’re here. I would not be able to do the work that I do if I didn’t have amazing family support. My husband’s sister is here all the time. It makes a huge difference if you have a career that leads you to travel. It’s very hard, though. I sympathize with working moms. I travel about 8 to 10 days a month, and then I’m home the rest of the time with the kids. It works out better for me than any other situation.”
It’s not hard to imagine that someone whose face has been on American television for more than 20 years has some beauty secrets to share. “I try to make sure I have clean skin every night,” reveals Lisa. “I use a Korean product called Amore Pacific (it’s called Amore in Asia). And I use a French/Spanish brand called Natura Bissé, I use their mask. It’s really expensive but it’s the best product ever!” Lisa Ling has one more trick, that every girl in China already knows. “I always use sunblock, like a typical Asian girl!”
After all those diverse professional experiences, Lisa Ling finally found a permanent home at CNN. Her show “This is Life with Lisa Ling” explores the life of ordinary people in difficult circumstances. “Our show, I think, is one of the most unique shows on American television, in that we will take a look into the lives of different American subcultures, or just different groups of people you have a strong opinion about,” she explains. Past episodes have featured stories on drug use in Mormon communities, gay rodeos, the world of sugar dadies, etc.
“You’ve probably judged them before,” says Lisa. “But we really give those people an opportunity to tell their stories, and we hope that our viewers will watch and be prepared to think a little differently, maybe with a little compassion. I’ve always believed that the more we know about each other, the better we are as humans.”
Since she has been in the business for so long, you could wonder how much Lisa Ling cares about what her audience thinks about her show. A great deal, it turns out. And technology definitely helps to stay in touch. “Oh it’s amazing,” she laughs. “I’m an obsessive social media junkie! When my show airs, I almost always ‘live tweet.’ It gives me an opportunity to engage with the audience. They really appreciate it. I can get a sense on how they’re feeling about the episode, any feedback that they may have. For me, that’s invaluable. We’re never going to get the ratings that the Kardashians get, because we’re doing pretty heavy topics. But our audience is very devoted and smart. If I try to endorse or sell any product, my audience calls me on it! I have a different kind of followers. I may not have the biggest social media following, but I have a devoted one!”
Since Lisa works for CNN, I couldn’t leave without asking her if she thinks the TV station helped Trump become President by the way they covered his campaign. Lisa Ling isn’t shy about admitting her employer shares part of the blame. “I think the media certainly helped him get elected,” she replies pointedly. “All the Networks helped. Unfortunately our news media adheres to a ratings system. They’re all competing with each other, and one thing about Donald Trump that is undeniable is that he rates, so he was featured a lot. As a result, he didn’t have to spend nearly as much money as other candidates since he had free press. I think the media has everything to do with how he got elected, for sure.”