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She hits harder now

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Times Staff Writer

To obtain material for her latest documentary -- a look inside North Korea’s secretive culture -- Lisa Ling went undercover last June, posing as a medical coordinator documenting the work of a Nepalese eye surgeon who was allowed in the country on a rare humanitarian mission.

Ling, a correspondent for National Geographic Channel’s “Explorer,” gave officials her real name and nationality but did not reveal that she was a journalist. She was shadowed by half a dozen minders during her 12-day stay but still managed to smuggle out tapes with footage of life in Pyongyang.

“I’m actually shocked that they didn’t Google me,” said the 33-year-old, whose piece is running tonight at 9, repeating Wednesday at 8 p.m.

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If they had, North Korean officials would have quickly realized that they were dealing with a veteran television reporter who has been on the air since she was 16. But they might not have appreciated the unorthodox path she has followed.

Ling gained national prominence when she was tapped in 1999 to be a co-host of “The View,” ABC’s dishy daytime talk show. But since leaving that program in 2002, she’s made a name for herself as a gutsy correspondent for National Geographic, traveling to El Salvador to confront the leaders of the ruthless MS-13 gang and visiting U.S. prisons to document the spread of methamphetamine use. In pieces for “The Oprah Winfrey Show” -- which she officially joined this season as a special correspondent -- Ling has covered the AIDS crisis among Ugandan orphans and bride-burning in India.

Her current projects may surprise her “View” fans, but Ling said she had returned to her roots: the kind of international journalism she thrived on as the senior war correspondent for Channel One, the television news service for schools where she worked for seven years.

“I consider myself to be the luckiest journalist on the planet,” she said over a recent lunch in Manhattan’s Theater District. “I’m so honored that during sweeps I did a piece on child slaves, while most quote ‘cable news networks’ were doing Anna Nicole Smith.”

Ling has fond memories of her time at “The View,” saying that the no-holds-barred dialogue among women of different generations made for “a very empowering show.”

But she said she was dismayed by the media’s current fixation on less-than-weighty stories, such as the recent Rosie O'Donnell-Donald Trump feud and Smith’s death.

“It’s tragic,” she said of the latter. “But we have soldiers dying every day. It doesn’t sit well with me. I also don’t want to sound like this nerdy activist. But to me it’s just sort of a sad commentary on the culture.”

The mix

So what was Ling doing on the red carpet outside of the Academy Awards, asking Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts how long it takes them to get ready to go out?

The correspondent said she agreed to help host ABC’s pre-awards show to leaven her current body of work.

“I think it’s important for me not to be completely out of the whole entertainment mix, and what better thing to do than the Oscars, since it is sort of the preeminent entertainment event?” Ling said.

“I am very proud that most of my work is very serious,” she added. “But you know, I’m a girl and I sometimes like to ask girlie things, and I don’t think that jeopardizes my ability to do quality journalism at all.”

Ling, who grew up in a Sacramento suburb, got her start in broadcasting when her high school debate team coach urged her to try out for a local teen magazine show called “Scratch.” Her work there captured the attention of producers of Channel One, a satellite news service distributed to junior high and high school classrooms.

When she joined the channel, Ling was just 18, the youngest reporter on staff, but distinguished herself by taking on tough foreign assignments, ultimately traveling to more than 30 countries.

“After you’re immersed in these stories and cultures, it’s hard to want to do anything else,” said Ling, who shared an office at times with Anderson Cooper, a fellow Channel One correspondent now at CNN.

But figuring out her next move was difficult.

“I just wasn’t ready to take a network job because I would be the low man on the totem pole,” she said. “There’s no way they would send me overseas as a young twentysomething reporter.”

Her agent heard about an opening on “The View,” a program Ling had never seen because of her constant travel schedule. She watched it and found it surprisingly appealing, and then beat out 12,000 other applicants for the job.

Ling was sitting in the show’s make-up room with the other co-hosts on Sept. 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center was attacked. “The View” was preempted by news coverage for several weeks, and when the show returned to the air, she made a comment that generated substantial heat.

“I said, ‘What happened to this country was the most egregious act of terrorism, but maybe for a minute we should sort of ask why this might have happened,’ ” she recalled. “ ‘Who would want to do this?’ ” The young co-host was inundated with e-mails, including some that urged her to “go back to China.”

“That was really a pivotal moment that really propelled me to just want to get back in the world, because there’s such closed-mindedness,” Ling said. “I just felt like there weren’t enough people asking why this happened.”

As it happened, National Geographic was looking for a new host for its program, “Ultimate Explorer,” then airing on MSNBC. Ling got the job and remained with the program when it was renamed simply “Explorer” and became the signature series of the new National Geographic Channel.

“From the moment we first started talking to her, we were seeing eye to eye,” said Tim Kelly, president of National Geographic Ventures. “She wants to do serious subjects but bring some personality to it and not have it come across as straight reporting. And she’s fearless.”

Laureen Ong, the channel’s president, who’s had to veto some of Ling’s riskier ideas, agrees. “She seems to be fascinated by the clearly dangerous stories,” she said.

More adventures

Ling pushed hard to go to North Korea, a country she had always longed to visit. Securing her entrance took months of negotiations. In the end, she said, it was the hardest assignment she’s had.

“Let’s face it -- we were there under false pretenses, so it was difficult to continue to play that role for 12 days on the ground,” she said. “And it was challenging to try to see beyond what our escorts wanted us to see.”

Up next: a piece about young girls with incarcerated mothers, airing March 25 on Oxygen to kick off its “Who Cares About Girls?” documentary series.

She’s also planning her wedding to Paul Song, a Chicago-based oncologist, set for later this year in Los Angeles.

“I knew I found the right guy when I was actually excited about kind of upending my schedule a little bit,” Ling said. “Before, when I’d be in the world, it was, ‘Oh, you want me to stay another month, no problem!’ Now I’m really, really excited to get home to someone.”

matea.gold@latimes.com


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