Lisa Ling forsakes comfort and safety in perpetual quest of the world's most intriguing stories.
by William Nakayama
magine being able to go and see for yourself the people and places that the world is abuzz over. That's exactly what Lisa Ling does for a living. Limitations of distance, topography and danger are no barrier to Ling's relentless curiosity about everything from female suicide bombers to life in North Korea. If it intrigues her, she's there.
But then Ling is no ordinary reporter.
At the age of 35, she has already been working like an ox as a journalist for 20 years! She was just in high school when Ling was spotted as having that rare mix of curiosity, empathy and verbal skills needed to bring issues into American living rooms. But those qualities wouldn't have kept her on the tube this long without the oxlike tenacity and diligence to keep digging away until a story surrenders its most fascinating secrets to be shared with the audiences of National Geographic Explorer, AC360 and The Oprah Winfrey Show.
The laws of physics dictate that Lisa Ling's body in perpetual motion won't be slowing down until her momentum is deflected by outside forces — say a stationary career and kids. Ling's hopeful estimate of when such forces might overtake her? Any day now.
Why would the most successful Asian American television journalist be planning to give up a career in its prime? For some insights we have to go back to her earliest years and to the ox's innate hankering to put herself at the center of a warm, secure family.
Lisa Ling was born August 30, 1973 in Sacramento. She was only seven when her parents divorced. She chose to live with her father. Television provided escape from her sense of isolation. As a 15-year-old attending Del Campo High in Fair Oaks, California, Ling was pushed by her speech teacher to enter an open audition for a syndicated teen magazine show called Scratch. Five hundred other kids had the same idea. Ling's potential as an eyecatching TV personality was immediately recognized and she was one of four teens chosen.
The oddball Asian kid from a broken home in a white suburb had become a charmed denizen of the surrogate reality that had been filling the void in her life. By the time she was ready for college, Ling had proven to be enough of a standout to land a job as Channel One's youngest globetrotting reporter. She put in 40-hour weeks at the satellite broadcast company's Hollywood studio while carrying a full load at USC.
Ling's drive and engaging high-energy personality took a predictable toll on her personal life. Before she turned 25 she was appointed Channel One's senior war correspondent. The job kept her shuttling among two dozen troubled nations that most high school kids can't even locate on a world map. A relationship was impossible under those conditions, but Ling capitalized on her experiences to produce eight PBS documentaries, including several award-winners.
In 1999 the young star caught the eye of Barbara Walters and was invited to become a host on The View. The show gave her a chance to expand her appeal beyond high school youth but its format cramped her journalistic style. From covering events of geopolitical significance, Ling was reduced to jockeying with three other hosts to contribute chitchat about the more mundane concerns of daytime TV. Some of her unexpended journalistic energies were channeled into writing articles as a contributing editor for USA Weekend.
Around that time Ling appeared in an Old Navy TV commercial which may have done more than any other single media event to bring her to the forefront of the Asian American consciousness. The commercial featured her cavorting about with five men. Her tagline: “I like my men strong and good-looking.” The problem — in the minds of irate Asian Americans — was that none was Asian. Ling became a lightning rod for the ire which, in fairness, might have been directed toward Old Navy, especially because its CEO happened to be a Chinese American woman.
The other development that put Ling's name on Asian American lips was her romance with Corean (Korean) American actor Rick Yune. Before Yune Ling had dated media entrepreneur Philip Levine until breaking off their engagement due to her constant travels.
Ling and Yune met at a People Magazine conference on teens in February 2001. A onetime Polo model and stock-trader, Yune had become an Asian heartthrob thanks to an intriguing performance in Snow Falling on Cedars (1999). His star soared in 2002 with the release of two big-budget features in which Yune played the main bad guy: The Fast and the Furious and Die Another Day. Ling and Yune were hailed as the Asian American glamour couple. Their Asian-on-Asian celebrity romance seemed to defy old patterns and was hailed as a milestone for the Asian Amerian image.
The romance ended in the spring of 2003 at around the time Ling was named to host National Geographic Ultimate Explorer.
It would be impossible for me to have a boyfriend right now,” Ling told Goldsea at the time. “But I'm totally fine with that because I have been meeting so many amazing people all over the world. Hopefully I'll have a substantive relationship at some point in my life but right now I'm just not quite ready to do that.”
She kicked off her NGUE gig with a timely segment on Yao Ming, easily the year's most sensational athlete. One of her other NGUE stories took her to India where she examined a generation of kids raised in prison.
“I developed these really close attachments to these Indian kids who grew up prison,” she recalled. “In India women have the option of bringing their kids to prison, thus raising a generation of prison kids. Having to develop a relationship with them and having to say goodbye is an extremely difficult thing to do.”
Ling ultimately married a Chicago radiation oncologist named Paul Song, 41, on May 26, 2007 in Los Angeles. They had been introduced in 2006 by mutual friends when Song was working at Chicago's Little Company of Mary Hospital. In attendance were Ling's role model Connie Chung and actresses Kelly Hu as well as actress Diane Farr who happens to be the wife of Song friend Seung Chung, a partner in an L.A.-based entertainment marketing firm. Ling and Song now live in Los Angeles.
Now that she's married, Ling has shown signs that she is getting in touch with her inner ox by shifting toward a more flexible schedule capable of accommodating domestic commitments. She has changed her status at National Geographic Explorer from host to special correspondent.
At the same time Ling is also broadening the audience for her acclaimed skills as an investigative journalist by taking on assignments as special correspondent for both AC360 and The Oprah Winfrey Show.
But she's hardly ready to give up her in-harm's-way reporting style. Her recent assignments have taken her far beyond the reach of most western journalists to North Korea, the Congo, Uganda, Ghana and Nigeria to mingle with some of the world's most desperate and dangerous people.
(Courtesy National Geographic Explorer)
“I developed these really close attachments to these Indian kids who grew up prison.”