Born August 30, 1973, in Sacramento, CA; daughter of Doug (an aviation manager) and Mary Ling. Education: Attended the University of Southern California.
Office—c/o National Geographic Society, P.O. Box 98199, Washington, DC 20090–8199.
Served as host of Scratch, a television magazine show for teens from northern California, c. 1989–91; reporter and then primary war correspondent for Channel One, a satellite television service for schools, 1991–99; freelance reporter and producer for ABC News, 1997–99; co–host of ABC's The View, May, 1999–November, 2002; host, National Geographic Ultimate Explorer, December, 2002—; has also served as a senior political correspondent for the College Television Network, contributing editor to USA Today magazine, and writer for the New York Times wire service.
Television journalist Lisa Ling is the host of National Geographic Ultimate Explorer, a Sunday–night staple that airs on the MSNBC cable network. Ling journeys to some of the world's most exotic, remote, and even dangerous locales to report stories that range from prisons in India to the women who jump out of planes to fight wildfires in the western United States. Offered the National Geographic job just before she turned 30, Ling did so with little hesitation, she told People. "I'm not married and I don't have kids," she told the magazine. "If I don't do this now, I don't know if I could do it in a couple of years."
Ling was born in 1973 in Sacramento, California, to Doug, an aviation manager, and Mary Ling. Her parents divorced when she was seven, and Ling and her sister lived with their father, though they saw their mother regularly. She attended a school in which she was one of just a handful of Asian–American students enrolled. "As a kid I was embarrassed to be Asian because I didn't look like everyone else," she recalled in an interview with Transpacific writer Steve Hirano. "People would tease me. I wasn't an outcast, but I didn't like being different."
Ling excelled academically and proved to be a formidable debater, and her debate–team coach suggested she try out for a spot on a local television show for teens called Scratch. She showed up for an audition that required her to stand in front of a camera for half a minute and talk about herself. "How I got the job I don't know," she joked with Transpacific's Hirano. "When I look back at those tapes.…;"Scratch—and Ling—proved to be a hit with younger viewers, and even turned into a nationally syndicated show. It required a heavy travel schedule in addition to her schoolwork, however. "I sacrificed my whole junior and senior years," she recalled in the Transpacific interview. "I mean, I still had a good time, always, but at the same time, I missed a lot of school. We would leave Thursday in the late afternoon and come back Sunday evening."
While on Scratch, Ling regularly received viewer mail and was stunned to learn that she had an actual fan club. Hers was a tough audience, she admitted to Hirano. "Students are extremely critical. They are really, really critical people. There are times when I think to myself that if I was sitting in the classroom I would have thought that I was acting geeky." Back home, she was slightly miffed by her high–school yearbook page, which termed her "The Next Connie Chung." As she explained in the Transpacific interview with Hirano, "I was kind of insulted. They're associating me with this Asian woman. Would you associate the blond girl on our show with Jane Pauley or with Diane Sawyer?"
Ling postponed college for a year to stay on Scratch, but her plans to enter Boston University in 1991 were further delayed when a producer in New York called and asked her to audition for a slot on a much–ballyhooed new educational television experiment called Channel One. A satellite news service broadcast directly into thousands of American schools, Channel One was created by the Whittle Educational Network as a way to supplement school curricula via a medium that appealed to students. Ling easily won the job, though she was Channel One's youngest reporter at the time. For the next seven years, her reports on news stories of the day reached some eight million student viewers daily, in 12,000 middle and high schools. She eventually began taking the toughest foreign assignments that required her to travel to places like Colombia, where she and her crew once filmed a cocaine bust, and Afghanistan during its messy civil war, where she disguised herself as Muslim woman. She later said that the Afghanistan experience was her most unforgettable: "I saw boys who looked about ten years old carrying weapons larger than they were," she told Psychology Today's Carin Gorrell. "They had no light in their eyes; they looked like they could shoot me right then and there with no remorse whatsoever. And I never saw one woman's face."
The job for Channel One was based out of Los Angeles, California, and Ling spent several years as a history major at the University of Southern California while working and traveling full–time for the show. Despite the opportunity, her family had been less than enthusiastic about her taking the job. "My parents, being of a traditional Chinese family, were pretty opposed to me pursuing any aspect of television," she confessed to Hirano in the Transpacific interview. "They wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer, of course." To further her career prospects, Ling and her Channel One producer also teamed up to make documentary films for KCET, the Los Angeles PBS affiliate. In one of them, Ling heart–wrenchingly chronicled her 13–year–old cousin's battle with fatal liver cancer.
The extra assignments paid off: In July of 1997 Ling landed a freelance contract with ABC News to deliver ten news feature stories. Her resulting work attracted the attention of ABC veteran journalist Barbara Walters, who offered her a job on her top–rated daytime talk show, The View, in May of 1999. The show was nearly two years old by then, and had been a surprise hit for the network with its round–table format that had Walters and four other women discussing the day's stories, dishing with celebrity guests, and delivering the latest news in health, fashion, and family matters. Each of the women represented different generations, and the original 20–something host, Debbie Matenopoulos, had become the subject of much criticism and even ridicule. Walters and the other executives involved in the show decided to go with a less lightweight representative of that age group, and the serious and elegant Ling easily beat out more than 12,000 applicants for the job.
Ling was 25 years old when she joined Walters, journalist–turned–suburban mother Meredith Vieira, former prosecuting attorney Star Jones, and comic Joy Behar on the show, which aired weekdays at 11 a.m. "My perspective is just fundamentally younger," she told Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service writer Al Brumley. "But it wasn't like, 'You have to spew the young agenda.' I'm representing a younger point of view just by being myself." Time's James Poniewozik wrote about the show's appeal to a viewing audience that is 72 percent female—many of whom, he theorized, are not just stay–at–home mothers, but working part–time, or working out of the home—as a daily dose of water–cooler–type workplace chat. "Trying to get through the day without murdering the kids, they want to escape not to a surrogate home but to a surrogate office."
Ling quickly proved a popular addition to the mix, with ratings shooting up some 15 percent after she came on board, though she occasionally struggled to get a word in during the sometimes boisterous give–and–take. "To have to be so forceful with my voice runs contrary to everything I was taught growing up," she told Psychology Today's Gorrell. "Coming from an Asian culture, I was always taught to respect my elders, to be a better listener than a talker." The View garnered the usual industry markers of success: Emmy nominations and Saturday Night Live parodies.
Ling's duties on The View required her to wear many hats, not all of them common to journalism. She demonstrated glute–tightening exercises, had her navel pierced on camera, and even trained for the Boston Marathon, which she finished in four hours and 34 minutes. The foundation established in memory of her cousin, the Ali Pierce Endowment Fund, had won some charity slots for the prestigious race, and Ling decided to volunteer, partly in honor of her uncle who had started the pediatric–cancer research charity, and then died of a heart attack while running a mini–marathon. "I wanted to do something, and I thought I would love to run in my uncle's honor and finish what he was never able to do," she told Psychology Today's Gorrell.
While appearing on The View, Ling wrote for USA Today magazine and for the New York Times wire service, but missed the hard news and war–torn locales of her former job. As she told People writer Michael A. Lipton, the hit ABC show "raised my profile a lot, [but] it's not where you want to spend the rest of your career." One morning in November of 2002, Walters made the congratulatory announcement on The View that Ling was leaving the show to take over as host of National Geographic Ultimate Explorer, an eight–year–old cable newsmagazine show. Walters, Ling later said, had been a supportive mentor all along. "From day one," Ling told Newsweek writer Marc Peyser, "she said, 'I want to keep you forever. But if you come across your dream job, tell me.'"
The National Geographic Ultimate Explorer was indeed Ling's professional goal, and those first–person segments she had done on The View were now expanded into long mountain treks with a camera crew in search of a story, or jumping out of an airplane for the MSNBC adventure–series program. Her reports began airing in May of 2003, and in one of her first, she journeyed to Shanghai with Houston Rockets basketball player Yao Ming to revisit the neighborhood of his youth. In another, she examined the differences between women incarcerated in the American and Indian prison systems who become mothers while serving time. Returning to an arduous global travel schedule, she trekked to the Himalayas to report on the black–market trade for the fur of the chiru, a rare Tibetan antelope, and traveled to Baghdad just after the museums there were looted during the 2003 United States–Iraq war. Such stories, Ling told Psychology Today's Gorrell, were the kind she always hoped to do as a journalist. "I've been so disenchanted with the apathy amongst young people for what's going on around the world," she said in the interview. "Our generation will inevitably assume the problems our country is faced with, and we are so ill–equipped to do so. My hope is that I can somehow raise the level of consciousness about world events."
The National Geographic Ultimate Explorer job forced Ling to move to Washington, D.C., where she shares a house with two male roommates. She has been romantically linked to actor Rick Yune, but declares she has no plans to settle down just yet. "I feel like a kid, like I haven't even stopped growing yet," she told People. Never having finished her USC degree, she nevertheless put her education and reporting skills to excellent use when she and her mother traveled to Taiwan: Intrigued by the reasons behind her parents' divorce, Ling began delving further into her family's past, and learned that her grandfather ran brothels in Taiwan and had three wives. Her sleuthing inspired her to begin writing a book on her family's history.
The Ultimate Explorer host seemed well–suited for the job, for Ling has claimed in several interviews that it is the hard–news, mettle–testing stories that truly thrill her. Recalling her Iraq visit in the People interview with Lipton, she said she climbed into a cab and found herself "with this driver who didn't speak a word of English, and it was a 13–hour drive to Amman, and I was thinking, 'I love my life right now being out here in the middle of nowhere, just experiencing history."
Daily Variety, November 19, 2002, p. 2.
Dayton Daily News, April 10, 2000, p. 2A.
Fresno Bee, February 9, 2000, p. A2.
Good Housekeeping, November 1999, p. 118; April 2000, p. 30.
InStyle, August 15, 1999, p. 67.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, August 4, 1999.
Newsweek, December 2, 2002, p. 91.
People, May 24, 1999, p. 125; April 30, 2001, p. 15; March 11, 2002, p. 118; December 2, 2002, p. 24; August 25, 2003, p. 79.
Psychology Today, January–February 2003, p. 37.
Time, May 22, 2000, p. 126.
Transpacific, June 1994, p. 18.
Virginian Pilot, May 30, 2003, p. E1.