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LISA LING IS THE REAL THING

Jan 5, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Lisa Ling recalled a recent query about her availability to host a reality show. “My agent said, `I know the answer, but I just have to ask you,”’ she recalled.
The answer, she quickly added, was a “resounding no.”
Though she just turned 30, Ms. Ling has already spent more than a decade on TV and in news, and she has a very clear vision of what she wants to do and be.
Since early last year when she walked away from her coveted high-profile position as one of the ladies on ABC’s daily gabfest, “The View,” Ms. Ling has been anchoring “National Geographic Ultimate Explorer,” which runs Sunday evenings on MSNBC.
She does more than just put a face on stories. She is also one of the show’s correspondents, regularly traveling around the world reporting on people and subjects that are often more complex than what is typical for most news shows in this era of short attention spans. Her reports have included the globalization of China, using basketball star Yao Ming as the centerpiece; the impact on children when their mothers are behind bars; and the political and business landscape in Colombia, a piece she only recently finished.
“Network news covers international stories when there is catastrophe or war, but there are so many other rich, appealing stories out there,” Ms. Ling said. “One reason I love National Geographic so much is that they take a risk. They cover stories not because they think it will rate hugely but because they really are compelling, interesting, educational stories.”
Of course, Ms. Ling wants the ratings as well, and early signs are promising. “We’ve been consistently among MSNBC’s top five shows of the week,” said Ms. Ling. “We do especially well with the younger demographic, which is the audience everyone wants.”
It helps that she is part of that audience, though she seems more mature and interested in news than most of her peers. It was that interest in world affairs that drove her surprising decision to walk away from “The View” after only two years on the show.
While she has happy memories of her experience, Ms. Ling said that in that format she couldn’t really address the political, social and global issues that interest her. “We would talk about [issues] in small doses,” she recalled, “and then we’d have to get to who Tom Cruise was dating. It’s fun to talk about. It’s just that personally, I didn’t enjoy doing it as my job.”
Her youthful enthusiasm and outspoken views played well most of the time, but she came in for her share of flak as well. For instance, some took issue with comments she made shortly after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. “I tried to just say we should think about why those who attacked may have done that,” she recalled. “I was dubbed as unpatriotic just because I wanted to understand why people were thinking the way they were thinking.”
The reaction included allusions to her ethnic heritage, which brought back painful memories of being teased as a child in Sacramento, Calif., when she attended a school where she was one of the few Asian Americans at the time.
“Some people who didn’t agree would say, `Go back to your country.’ Or, `You’re stupid, you chink.’ It would happen more frequently than I would have liked. I got used to it, but it always hurt.”
Her first understanding of prejudice came through her Chinese grandfather’s stories. He told of coming in the 1930s to America, where, despite holding advanced degrees, he couldn’t find work because, said Ms. Ling, “there was so much discrimination.”
Her own woes began in grade school. “I was teased a lot,” she recalled, “probably more than any other kid in my community because I was different. … The most common [name I was called] was `Risa Ring’ [pronounced Chinese coolie style]. Kids will be kids, but it’s one of those things I really learned from. And I’m glad to be away from.”
When she was 15 Ms. Ling was one of 500 kids who auditioned at a local mall for a teen TV show. She was chosen and spent three years during high school as one of the hosts of “Scratch,” a syndicated kids entertainment show. That led to an internship at a local station, KXTV, Sacramento, in the news department.
She went on to attend the University of Southern California because it was in L.A., where she had a job as a reporter for Channel One, which is shown in schools. She missed classes by traveling all over the world. “That’s when I got the travel bug,” she recalled.
“The View” moved her onto the national stage, where she became a celebrity overnight. She also learned from her co-hosts, all older and more experienced women.
What did she learn from Barbara Walters? “Promotion, promotion, promotion,” Ms. Ling replied with a laugh. “No matter how hard you work, no matter how good your story, it doesn’t matter if people don’t see it. And you really, as much as you hate it, have to go out and sell.”
Which is how I came to have lunch with Ms. Ling last month while she was on a break from her hectic travel schedule due to the holiday. I was impressed by her professionalism, down-to-earth nature and dedication to being a journalist.
“I love what I’m doing now,” she said. “And I’ve never been this way before. I’ve always wanted to figure out what the next step should be, what ladder to climb and to what end. Now I love what I do and I’m praying to God it doesn’t go away soon.”
She is convinced she did the right thing leaving “The View,” a job many other women covet. Still, there are moments when she misses that platform: “Like when we captured Saddam Hussein. I wanted that immediate audience to say what I was thinking.”
She doesn’t miss the notoriety. “I really don’t,” she said. “People still respond to me. But now I think they are responding to the work. And that is what I love.”