Lisa Ling: On the Best and Worst of America & Who Inspires Her (INTERVIEW)

The investigative journalist talks about her last season of 'Our America,’ and her passion for hard-hitting TV news minus the sensationalism.
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(Photo: Courtesy of OWN)

(Photo: Courtesy of OWN)

It takes some serious street cred to get a spot on Barbara Walters’s couch. Just ask Lisa Ling. At age 18, she appeared on high school televisions nationwide on Channel One News, traveling the world and becoming the network’s senior war correspondent by 25. She also investigated nuclear weapons smuggling for Time magazine and produced eight documentaries for PBS. In 1999, Ling joined the hosts of The View. Since then, she has hosted National Geographic Explorer, which included a look inside North Korea which famously involved her going undercover as a medical worker. And in 2011, The Oprah Winfrey Networks (OWN) premiered her series: Our America with Lisa Ling, which is currently airing its final season this year. 

We sat down with Lisa to talk about Our America, her family, and where she's eyeing her next assignment.

We saw that this fifth season will mark the end of your show. How do you feel about the series coming to an end?

It’s bittersweet. I’ve been with OWN since they started and I like to think we played a small role in the success they’re having today, but at the same time, I’ve done 44 episodes and have been so incredibly proud of each one, but I think it was time to move on.

What's next for you?

I got an opportunity at CNN so I thought this would be a good next step. We don’t have a title yet, but there will be opportunities to go international more often, and we’ll tell stories to help people understand each other better. That’s not going to change.

There have been over 44 episodes so far. Looking back, what story affected you the most?

That’s a hard question! I have loved every single episode and feel lucky to have those experiences. We did an episode about seniors in America, which included my dad and some of the things that we have going on with him. We did a piece this season about foster care in Los Angeles. I’ve loved them all. They’ve all contained stories about people who have shared their deepest, darkest, and most hidden secrets in some cases. I’m just so appreciative of people’s candor and willingness to share their stories with me.

Lisa Ling on location for 'Our America.' (Photo: Courtesy of OWN)

Lisa Ling on location for 'Our America.' (Photo: Courtesy of OWN)

How did you get them to open up to you?

I think the reason why they have opened up is because we built a reputation over the last five seasons for not being exploitative or sensational and that’s something that’s really important to me. And it’s hard to do that in television these days because everything is exploitative.

Has Oprah ever given you any advice as far as the stories you tell?

She’s never given me advice because she always appreciated the style we put forward, but she’s been a huge supporter. Nothing excites me more than getting emails from her telling me that she is really pleased or when she tweets about my show. That’s always a thrill.

You've traveled around the United States investigating all kinds of dark subjects from heroin abuse, wrongful convictions, sex trafficking. Have you ever contemplated moving to Canada?

(Laughs) Not at all. While I’ve seen the worst in humanity, I’ve always encountered the best in humanity and that makes me really hopeful. We live in a country where there is a lot of darkness, but we also live in a country where people stand up for others and advocate on their behalf. And that’s something that’s unique about us.

You've done stories on gang violence, the drug war, the very well known 2007 National Geographic documentary Inside North Korea. What motivates you as an investigative journalist?

I’ve always believed that we are more evolved the more we know about each other. As someone in the field, I feel like I’m a better person by being more aware of the people who inhabit this world.

Lisa Ling in 'Our America's' 'Under the Gun' episode. (Photo: Courtesy of OWN)

Lisa Ling in 'Our America's' 'Under the Gun' episode. (Photo: Courtesy of OWN)

In March 2009 your sister Laura and her colleague Euna Lee were detained by North Korea and sentenced to 12 years in a labor prison, before being released five months later. How is your sister doing now?

She’s doing great. She had her second child six months ago, and there’s nothing like having two beautiful children to make the pain go away. Honestly, to this day, we’re just so appreciative that she was able to be returned to our family.

Who inspires you?

I’ve been so fortunate to have worked with two legends: Oprah Winfrey and Barbara Walters. Those two women have always been idols of mine because they have been able to communicate amazing stories to a wider audience. They exhibit a kind of work ethic that I was fortunate to observe — they’re shockingly relentless and tireless workers.

After all these seasons of Our America and culling from your own life experience, what would you say you are most proud of about this country? What has been your greatest disappointment?

There’s a lot of judgement and condemnation of people and I think one of the reasons is because we have so much more media than ever before and outlets are becoming more opinionated than ever before. It’s hard to cut through that judgement sometimes. It’s rare to be able to do a show like this on television where things have become so loud and sensational.

Last year, you became a mom. Has becoming a mom changed the way you've looked at the world and if so, how?

It’s hard to be away from her. It pains me every time I have to walk out the door. But at the same time, I do feel like the world has changed since she came into my world. It makes me want to fight even harder to bring untold stories to the fore because I want her to be able to grow up in a more compassionate world. And if I can somehow show her the humanity in people then I know that’s something I can be really proud of.