Tough but empathetic, Lisa Ling starts second season with CNN

Lisa Ling films an episode of her CNN news documentary series “This Is Life With Lisa Ling” that focuses on an outlaw biker gang.
Lisa Ling films an episode of her CNN news documentary series “This Is Life With Lisa Ling” that focuses on an outlaw biker gang. CNN

She never breaks eye contact, barely even blinks. The intensity of her gaze denotes both compassion and kindness, but the question she delivers is nothing if not piercing and pointed.

“What’s it like,” Lisa Ling asks a woman across a kitchen table in suburban Salt Lake City, “to be the daughter of one of the most notorious people in recent American history?”

Later in tonight’s season premiere of the CNN news documentary series “This Is Life With Lisa Ling,” the eponymous host will hug the same woman she so bluntly questioned, Becky, daughter of jailed Utah polygamist cult leader Warren Jeffs. Ling will come close to tearing up when one of Jeffs’ sons, Roy, recounts horrific incidents of sexual abuse involving his father. Still later, Ling will accompany an activist to an undisclosed location, where a teenage girl is considering leaving Jeffs’ Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. As the girl, whose face is pixelated to shield her identity, mulls her options, Ling tells her, voice fraught with intent, “Freedom is nice.”

Few people would begrudge the journalistic chops of Ling, 42, a Carmichael native whose career has included war reporting (Afghanistan, Kosovo and Iraq), investigative work (Colombian drug cartels) as well as slice-of-life news documentaries first for National Geographic Explorer, then the Oprah Winfrey Network and now CNN.

Yet, Ling has been around long enough to feel comfortable briefly sloughing off the armor of objectivity and assuming the role of, if not full-on advocate, then at least a fleshed-out human being who is concerned about the welfare of others. She makes no apologies for both showing she cares and expressing her opinion – within limits. It’s this straddling of the line between aggressive news hound and comfort animal that’s a big part of the appeal of “This Is Life,” which has earned a second season after garnering top ratings in its time slot among cable news channels last year.

The level of objectivity “depends on the story you’re working on,” Ling said by phone from CNN offices in New York. “There are so many people still living under the stranglehold of Warren Jeffs ... people completely unfamiliar with the outside world and really suffering as a result. So, in a case like that, knowing what I know about the person they consider a prophet, knowing what I know about the abuses he committed, if I in some way can provide those people with information on how to get help, then I will wear the advocate moniker.

“You can still remain objective, but when it comes to people who are in a challenging situation, if, in some way, you can point them in the right direction, why shouldn’t you?”

Ling, who earned her first press card before many of her Del Campo High School peers got their driver’s licenses, knows well the traditional journalistic tenet of objectivity. But she maintains that viewers are savvy enough to realize that reporters are people too, and that sometimes protocol can be breached. Besides, her viewers, those who have followed Ling’s rise from teenage news reporter to panelist on morning chat show “The View” to “special correspondent” for “The Oprah Winfrey Show” to her current incarnation as news documentary host, have become accustomed to her approach. And many will recall Ling’s outright advocacy in 2009, trying to broker the release of her sister, Laura, who was seized by North Korean officials while on assignment for a cable TV channel.

Though stressing she doesn’t make so-called advocacy reporting a habit, nor does she seek out stories that lead in that direction, Ling nonetheless makes no apologies when she occasionally acts empathetically. In “Unholy Addiction,” an episode from last season dealing with prescription painkiller abuse among Mormons, she counseled a woman “deep in the throes of her heroin addiction” to accompany her to a recovery meeting with an organization whose members Ling also was featuring.

“For me, yes, I could have just watched the woman descend into this abyss, or I could try to put her in touch with those people that I met,” Ling said. “We ended up (asking her) on camera, not because I was trying to contrive the situation, but I just so happened to be meeting these people while I’m doing this story. I asked her on camera, ‘Can I take you to this meeting, because I think you’d really benefit from it?’ She, unfortunately, didn’t show up. But, as a human being, I couldn’t not at least provide her the opportunity to let her know these resources exist.”

Ling can be as hard-nosed as any reporter – later in this season, she will embed in an outlaw biker gang, reporting on the subculture in the wake of last May’s deadly shootout in Waco, Texas – but she’ll also allow herself to tear up on camera, something many TV journalists would consider verboten. Filming a father-daughter dance for inmates at the city jail in Richmond, Va., there was not a dry eye in the ballroom, including Ling’s, when the men traded jumpsuits for three-piece suits and their dolled-up young daughters clung to their biceps as the music played.

She points out that the current version of her documentary series is “edgier,” as well as newsier, than it was as “Our America With Lisa Ling,” which ran for four seasons on OWN. Television documentaries, she said, are making a comeback not in spite of, but because of, the ubiquity of reality television – or, “scripted reality,” as some critics call it.

“I think people are smart enough, particularly young people, to know that so much of (reality TV) is contrived,” she said. “So what reality TV has done is ignite an increased interest in documentary programming. Outlets like National Geographic and The History Channel are going back to their roots and veering less on the side of reality.

“ ‘This Is Life’ is ... more testosterone-driven than (her) OWN show. We probably wouldn’t do the episode about outlaw bikers on my previous show. This is more in-your-face. I love both shows, but I think ‘This Is Life’ suits me better.”

CNN allows her production company liberal leeway in subject matter, she said, adding that the network does have topic-approval of the season’s eight episodes

“They’ll let us go find the stories,” she said. “We have more creative control than before.”

In this era of sound bites, Ling calls having an hourlong format – about 48 minutes, sans commercials – “a luxury” for a TV journalist. It allows her to delve into a subject matter, spend up to two weeks on location and “really get to know” the people she profiles. Such familiarity comes through in her interviews, which feel neither forced nor overly chummy. She said the long-form format allows her crew to “roll (cameras) for a long time,” long enough, she says, for people to forget they’re being filmed. Sometimes, as in the outlaw biker episode, Ling said “I have to get on the phone with people beforehand to try to convince them to tell their stories. You build a relationship.”

Which is how Ling can get away with, in the father-daughter dance episode, looking a prisoner who has fathered five children with four women dead in the eye and asking, “May I suggest using condoms?”

She laughs at the retelling. In the prime of her career – she has a 2-year-old daughter and lives with her husband in the Los Angeles area – Ling calls herself “lucky” because “opportunities like this come along almost never.”

Still, she is not without ambitions. She said she’s working on producing two “scripted projects,” a TV drama and a sitcom, still in development. She declined to give details, except to say, “Everything I ever do I hope will be provocative and have an element of social commentary involved. I hope the scripted programs would be as well.”

Should the shows sell, will Ling be in front or behind the camera?

“Completely behind (the camera),” she said, laughing once more. “I’m not an actress, even though people still think I was in ‘Kill Bill.’ ”

Sam McManis: 916-321-1145, @SamMcManis

“This Is Life With Lisa Ling”

Season premiere: 9 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 30, CNN