Award-winning Journalist Lisa Ling on discrimination, family and Oprah

Scene from Our America with Lisa Ling – “Under the Gun” episode. Photo credit: Image courtesy of OWN
What's it like to be hard-hitting journalist Lisa Ling? We chat with the host of "Our America with Lisa Ling."

Lisa Ling is one of the most prominent broadcast journalists today. She’s filmed more than 40 episodes of Our America with Lisa Ling, a documentary series looking at issues such as gun violence, ADHD, criminal informants and more—all new topics that will air this season. The 4th, and final, season of the series premieres May 29th on OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network with an episode entitled “Fighting Satan,” where Ling travels to Georgia and Florida to visit ministries practicing “deliverance.” Ling is currently in production on a new series about American cultures and subcultures that will premiere on CNN this fall.

I chatted with Ling on the phone about many things, including her admiration for Connie Chung and working with Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey. Ling also talks about facing discrimination as a child and early in her career.

– Momo Chang

Trailer for Our America with Lisa Ling.

What’s an average day like for you?

I don’t have any kind of average day because I’m on the road all the time for my show. So one day I might be waiting to hear from a sex trafficking victim, another day I might be waiting for the heroine addict to call. Another day I might be with my baby taking her to a mommy and me group. When I’m not on the road traveling, I try to spend as much time with my daughter as I can.

For Our America with Lisa Ling on the Oprah Winfrey Network, you’ve covered so many topics. I’m wondering if there’s one particular story that really stood out to you?

Well, we’ve produced over 40 shows for our Our America series. People really allow us into their lives in such a profound way, and sometimes share with us things that they haven’t even share with their closest family members. Every one of the stories has been meaningful to us. This season we worked on an episode on the foster care system in Los Angeles. We were allowed unprecedented access into the largest foster care system in the country, and arguably the entire world, here in Los Angeles. It was just such an incredibly eye-opening and amazing look into how this massive system works and we met incredible people who really allowed us into their worlds and into their lives in such a deep and profound kind of way. We feel really grateful to be allowed into peoples and to be able to do a show like this.

Growing up, who were some of your influences?

As an aspiring journalist, I didn’t know another woman of my generation who is Asian American who didn’t aspire to be Connie Chung one day. Connie really paved the way, not just for Asian journalists, but women, in so many ways. And I will always regard her so highly and be appreciative of the challenges she faced. I can proudly say that I don’t believe that my gender or ethnicity have been overt challenges for me but I know that for Connie, she was one of the first and had to deal with a lot of scrutiny from both the Caucasian community but also the Asian community. She had to appease so many different worlds in many ways.

Have you met her before?

When I started working on The View, I got a card from Connie, just out of the blue, congratulating me. And it meant so much to me. It was so touching because here was a card from someone who I always admired. I kept that card on my cork board for the entire time I was at The View. It always warms my heart that she took the time to send the note. I’d never met her before in my life.

What was it like working with other really prominent women journalists like Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey?

Incredible. You know, the whole time I worked for Oprah, whenever I’d be on her show, I’d see her sitting there and would have to pinch myself because it was so surreal. I also just really learned a lot from both of them. Barbara always emphasized to me that I should really not neglect my personal life in my effort to become successful. I worked with Barbara on the show very regularly, so she and I interacted on a regular basis. She was always very nurturing with me and the other women. We always felt like she was the wiser, older sister to all of us. And you know, I don’t want to say “mother figure” so much because she was really a colleague.

And Oprah. When I got my own show, I would hear from her after my show aired because she would watch all my shows and she would always email me or Tweet amazing things about me and my shows. I still have all the emails to this day (laughs).

How has being Chinese American and Asian American influenced your career?

One of the reasons why I wanted to pursue broadcast journalism was because it was all at the time I thought I could pursue. Connie was really only the Asian person that I saw regularly at a national level. And so having her exist out in the universe gave me the confidence to want to do something similar to her. Since then, I think that being Asian, you know, having cultural roots, has widened my perspective and helps me to have more compassion for people of different ethnicities and different backgrounds.

Interestingly enough, when I was a kid, I hated being Asian because I was so different from everyone I grew up with [Ling grew up in Carmichael in Sacramento County, CA]. I hated when people would come over to my house because my house smelled like Chinese food. I was teased relentlessly by kids in school. I hated being Chinese. Yet, I never really felt entirely American because I looked so different. I didn’t feel entirely American, nor did I feel entirely Chinese because I didn’t know the first thing about being from China. To be able to host a show called Our America is just a real source of pride for me.

Have you ever had to deal with any direct or indirect racism in the industry?

When I was working at Channel One, Rolling Stone magazine had this “hot” issue. They named like “hot hamburger,” “hot actor,” “hot designer” and they had a category called “hot reporter.” And one year, they named me as their “hot reporter.” I was like 19 or 20 years old. While I was at Channel One, someone cut that photo of me out of the magazine and drew slanted eyes on it and put it in my mailbox. And it was one of the most horrifying experiences that I’ve ever had because I walked out of that mail room and everyone looked guilty to me. And it was so hurtful because up until then, these people were my family. I was traveling to war zones with some of these people, and spending more time in my office than I would spend anywhere else.

Wow. And unfortunately, stuff like that still happens in a lot of places.

Oh yeah. The fact is, Asian Americans, while we are as American as anybody else, there’s a certain percentage of the population doesn’t look at us as American, and that’s really unfortunate.

Was there ever a moment in your career that you felt really scared and you felt like you didn’t want to do this type of work anymore?

Definitely. I have experienced perilous situations in my work. Going to war zones, jumping into cocaine-infested laboratories in the middle of the Colombian jungle. But the time I really questioned everything was when my sister was held captive in North Korea. I think that certainly gave pause and made me think about how my work and my sister’s work affects our family.

How did that change your relationship with your sister?

Well, my sister [Laura Ling] and I have always been close as friends since we were little. But what happened made us even closer, if you could get any closer, just because we recognized how precious life is and we still are incredibly grateful to this day that we were able to get her back.

How has being married and being a mother changed you and how you look at career?

Well, it changes everything. You know, being married, is hard when you have a full-time job that requires you to travel all the time. In a lot of ways, what I do has taking a major toll on my personal life and I have an amazingly understanding husband. And I try my best to be as good a mother as I can. When I am here, I spend every second with her. It has changed a lot, but it’s also enriched life and made me even want to fight harder for people who don’t have a voice.

You have a really fully life, including a really robust career and you’re also a new mom. What do you like to do to relax or do in your down time?

Honestly, I’m a massage junkie and I love to get a massage. But other than that, my husband [oncologist Paul Song] and I have reverted to being complete homebodies. We just derive so much pleasure from being home with our child. We both like to work out. We’re actually going to go work out pretty soon. We’re going to take the baby with us. Other than that, we’re complete homebodies.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. This is cross-posted at Comcast XFinity.

Main image: Scene from Our America with Lisa Ling – “Under the Gun” episode. Photo credit: Image courtesy of OWN.

What Lisa’s Watching:

1.) Game of Thrones
2.) Downtown Abbey
3.) Orange is the New Black
4.) Vice