Lisa Ling has sought to take Americans to remote, forgotten places through her reporting in hopes they'll reach out to people in other countries.
With an enormous smile and deep-set almond eyes, Lisa Ling looks much younger than her 34 years. Yet when she speaks, it's with the voice of a confident, well-tested foreign correspondent who has seen and documented some of the most devastating — yet hopeful — stories of the human condition.
As the featured speaker in the Finger Lakes Community College Foundation’s annual Visiting Scholars Series, Ling shared some of her reporting experiences with an audience of students, staff and members of the community at the Constellation Brands-Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center on Tuesday night.
There was plenty to tell. Ling has been a journalist for almost half her life.
She got her big break in the news business at 18, when after two years hosting a teen variety talk show she was hired as a correspondent for Channel One News.
"I was hired, I think, to be one of their cute fashionable reporters," Ling said of the news network, which broadcasts to middle and high schools across the country. "But then they started sending me to cover stories in the world, and it just opened my eyes in a way that propelled me to want to continue to do this kind of work."
"It's infectious," she added. "Once you have the opportunity to see how the rest of the world lives, it's hard to pretend that it doesn't exist."
Ling worked with Channel One for seven years as one of eight globe-trotting reporters ranging in age from 18 to 26. CNN host Anderson Cooper was also among the ranks.
One of Ling's most memorable assignments with Channel One was covering Afghanistan's civil war in 1994. It was her first trip to an active war zone.
"When I got off the plane, I descended into this throng of young boys carrying weapons that were literally as large as they were," she recalled.
More jarring than being surrounded by armed soldiers was "the look of lifelessness in those children’s eyes." Ling said she couldn’t help wondering what would happen to those boys in 10 years, since they had no educational prospects and no real future outside of the war and their duties as child soldiers.
When Ling returned to the U.S., she couldn’t believe the lack of empathy among many Americans toward war-torn and poverty-stricken countries like Afghanistan. She decided then that she would make a career out of reporting from areas of the world that the American public would often rather ignore.
During Ling's seven years with Channel One, she visited more than 30 countries, including Colombia, Cambodia, Iraq, Iran and Nigeria.
When Ling aged out of Channel One’s cohort — "I ceased to have the 90210-effect," she said — she took over the "young seat" on the women's talk show "The View," joining co-hosts hosts Joy Behar, Star Jones Reynolds, Meredith Vieira and Barbara Walters.
Ling enjoyed her role on the show, which she described as "empowering" yet "light and funny." She liked that "five women of different generations could discuss everything from politics to Tom Cruise’s personal life."
Ling’s heart was elsewhere, however, and she found it "stifling" to be in the studio every day. She had also come under fire for comments she made after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, when she asked Americans to think about why
the hijackers attacked them.
In 2002, Ling took the job as host of the TV documentary series “National Geographic Explorer," becoming the series’ first female host. Since then, she has also become a special correspondent for the Oxygen Channel and the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and produced eight documentaries for Public Broadcasting Services Television.
She has reported from war zones in Colombia and Iraq and documented social tragedies such as the spreading American methamphetamine epidemic. She has gone under cover in North Korea to learn what life is like under Kim Jong Il and taken a camera inside maximum security prisons.
And her investigative pieces have raised more than just awareness for the causes they address. As an example, Ling cites a recent "Oprah" piece reporting on gang rape in the Congo.
"Not only did that episode get a higher rating than the episode with Matt Damon and Hilary Swank, but in one day of television, $2.5 million was raised" for a foundation that benefits the rape survivors, she said.
What sets Ling’s brand of journalism apart is her determination to uncover the multiple perspectives of an issue. She called this "finding the duality in every story" and stressed the importance of "getting the facts on the ground" rather than relying on pre-existing judgments.
Ling's open-minded reporting has helped her see the strength of the human spirit in the oddest of places — in prisoners sentenced to a life behind bars, impoverished Indian women acting as surrogate mothers for wealthy Western families, and shell-shocked residents of New Orleans who lost their homes, belongings and livelihoods in hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Every soldier, every prisoner "just wants to be heard," said Ling. "At the end of the day, everyone has a story to tell."
And once those stories of loss, violence and tragedy — and humanity — are told, and told well, it becomes harder to ignore them, said Ling.
"Now that you know, you can't pretend that you don't," said Ling, quoting her friend and inspiration, Oprah Winfrey.
Hilary Smith can be reached at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 343, or at email@example.com.