A journalist exposes the truth. They aren’t usually the ones to expose themselves. But in Season 4 Episode 1 of the CNN docuseries This is Life with award-winning journalist and host Lisa Ling, that’s exactly what she does. Strips down. Gets exposed. Quite literally stands naked in front of her subjects and her crew to talk about her body. (You’ll have to tune in for tonight’s premiere to see what we mean.)
Ling says that was an unusual circumstance and a kind of journalistic storytelling we don’t often see. “I try very hard to not become the story. I am the vehicle. Some of the other guys on shows on CNN and other networks, it’s really about their journey." She repeats, "For me, I am the vehicle.”
However, she says that as “I was watching this young man with a ‘deformed’ body, stand there and talk about the things he loved about his body-- he stood there so confidently, I felt compelled to do it as well. It was one of those moments I didn’t expect I would ever do-- but I shared this very poignant experience with those two.”
The young man she’s referring to is Justin, one of the focal points in Episode 1 ‘Sexual Healing,’ who has cerebral palsy and visits a San Francisco-based sex therapist to deal with intimacy issues. In the episode Justin and therapist both get naked, stand in front of the mirror and talk about things they like.
Ling says, “I look at my body differently now, I still have issues. But I look at it differently after that experience. I was having trouble looking at myself but now I think, I freakin’ birthed two humans. I carried two humans and had them surgically removed from them. I should stand up and be proud of that. And anyone who gives me shit about that,” she laughs, “they can screw themselves.”
Part of Ling’s strength, which she plays to in Season 4, is that she digs into hard topics, sensitive topics, somehow able to be both fully immersed and totally omniscient when needed. Some reporters like to get in the shower without getting wet. Ling does the opposite: she soaks it all in and, in return, gets soaked. Or in the case of ‘Sexual Healing,’ gets naked.
There are moments in the first episode, where Ling attends a group sex therapy session with Psalm Isadora, a known sex expert and relationship guru, who has since passed since the episode was shot. In one scene Isadora instructs the class to pump their arms and yell out “YES,” while she simultaneously shouts, “orgasm is God!” At this moment the camera cuts to Ling, whose face is part horrified part happy: she’s uncomfortable. Admittedly so. “I grew up in a family that was very weird about sex. I was ordered never to have it. Never let my husband see me naked.” She even tells us that it was harder to get naked, stand in front of the mirror, and talk about her body, than it was to report on the front lines of Iraq and Afghanistan-- which is where she started her career.
(L) “Patriot Movement” Credit: Eros Hoagland; (R) Lisa Ling in “Lost Vegas” Credit: CNN
“Because of how I was raised and the pressure that society puts on women, I’ve always felt kind of insecure,” she pauses and corrects herself here. “I’ve always felt insecure. When you watch any episode of television I’ve ever done in my life, I’ve always been very covered up, wearing the same shade of cargo pant. V-necks, but not too low. I have a certain look and one that's not revealing or distracting in any way.”
So why leave that shot in? “In that environment," she says, "which was so freeing and uninhibited, it was really uncomfortable. But if I'm going to allow other people to do something really uncomfortable, sometimes I feel like it’s not fair if I don’t do it myself.”
When asked if there are moments where she’s felt she's gone or taken something too far, she says, “This coming season I embedded with the militia in Arizona and one of the conditions of getting the interview with these guys was that I had to fire a semi-automatic weapon. I am virulently anti-gun, but I did it and was actually really good at it. But I definitely did think to myself ‘Is this the kind of thing I want put on television?’ But in the end, despite political differences, of which there were many, especially since she was with them post-election, something she calls "personally quite devastating," she walked away with something useful. "What I came away with and what I very often come away with when I’m working on these kinds of stories, that despite different political ideologies, we have some common ground. No matter where I am or who I’m with we always get to the humanity of every story.”
Over the course of her career and with 'This Is Life,' Ling has been granted unprecedented access to many groups, like the Mongols. Though she says she’s not trying to “uncover stories,” she does bring a voice to stories that haven’t been publicly told, explaining she thinks a journalist is a storyteller. But even now, those stories don’t simply land in her inbox. “I fancy myself as a bit of a hustler,” she says. “I’m a very persistent person. I can be aggressive in my own way. You have to constantly be pushing to get the stories that you want told, told. I know that I can’t get complacent or stagnant. These kind of episodes are going to come to me, I have to find them and I have to push for them if I really want to do them.”
“This is Life with Lisa Ling,” premieres tonight, October 1 on CNN. In addition, she has a digital series coming out this fall, “This is Sex with Lisa Ling,” where she explores the enduring taboos around sex in this country.
Arianna Schioldager is Editor-in-Chief at Create & Cultivate. You can follow her @ariannawrotethis.