In her upcoming CNN series debuting Sunday, Lisa Ling is interviewing a metro Atlanta man named Rich who is dating a woman 37 years younger than him in what is known as a "sugar baby/sugar daddy" arrangement.
Ling can't hide her discomfort and asks him straight on: "A lot of people might say you're a dirty old man."
This loaded term doesn't faze Rich, who laughs and replies, "I am a dirty old man. Have you ever met one who didn't like to flirt?"'
Ling pauses and smiles. "Actually... no."
Rich grins. "I rest my case."
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Ling, a journalist since she was a teenager covering news nationwide in schools for Channel One in the early 1990s, carries a serious, yet calm persona that places her sources at ease, even those who might otherwise never show their faces on camera.
Her new series "This is Life With Lisa Ling" is similar to her OWN show "Our America With Lisa Ling," which just wrapped over the summer after five seasons. In both cases, she tackles provocative issues such as child beauty pageants, polygamy and faith healers.
"I feel like the CNN show is a little more in your face, a little edgier," she said. "I'm proud of the OWN series but I wanted to amp it up a bit. It feels more present."
She said she voluntarily left Oprah Winfrey's network earlier this year to work with CNN because she has always loved the Atlanta-based network going back to the first Gulf War in 1991. "When I saw CNN start doing original series programming, I thought this was the right place for my show," she said. "CNN has been a constant in my life."
Being part of the network, she noted, "is surreal. Two days ago, I arrived and got off the elevator and there's this big photo of me. It was disconcerting but really amazing. It's a dream come true."
She used to work with Anderson Cooper on News One so she's indirectly reunited with him. (Check out a video of the two of them back in the day here.)
Ling said she is always seeking fresh topics to explore. "Our litmus test for stories is if this is something people will want to talk about and possibly debate? Is this something that will provoke people to think?"
She is deeply involved in every story. She doesn't just parachute in for the big interview. Any given hour-long documentary could take two months to research, shoot and produce.
Given her credible reputation, Ling gains impressive access. During a piece about pill addiction in Utah for CNN, the Mormon church allowed her to film a twelve-step group discussing their issues. And she sometimes gets more involved than a typical journalist. For instance, she offered Sarah, a Mormon addicted to drugs and estranged from her family, to meet with recovered addicts. Unfortunately, Sarah never showed up.
"It's hard not to try to put her in contact with people who might able to help her," Ling said. "But it's ultimately on her."
Ling herself enjoys breaking her own preconceived notions. When it came to sugar babies (young women who chase rich, older men), she said "it was hard for me as a feminist to talk to these women wearing Chanel bags and Christian Louboutin shoes and not be judgmental. But after hearing their stories, I have a better understanding of their motivations."
"Not that I endorse their lifestyle,' she added. (Atlanta, by the way, is a hotspot for "sugaring," as it's called.)
As a member of "The View" more than 13 years ago, she said she can't believe now that she was on that show, which just had a major makeover this season. (She hasn't had a chance to watch the new version yet.)
"I never watched myself a single time on that show making small talk," Ling said. "Yet I love watching my documentaries. Those stories aren't about me. I'm just a facilitator. In retrospect, 'The View" wasn't the right place for me."
At the same time, Ling said she had a lot of fun on "The View." "Who knows? Maybe in the future I might want to do a studio show. I was in my mid-20s doing 'The View.' My heart, though, has always been in the field."
"This is Life With Lisa Ling," 10 p.m. Sundays starting Sept. 28, CNN