Ling leads exploration of painful historic moments in CNN series
As a TV journalist in the public eye for more than 20 years, Lisa Ling knows that criticism and angry comments from the public come with the territory.
But she was taken aback by the viciousness of the remarks she saw last year when the country was shut down by the pandemic.
“The day after Donald Trump called COVID the ‘China virus,’ I got two messages on social media that told me my people were responsible for it,” Ling, 48, says. “I saved the tweet: ‘I hope you and your kids die from the Wuhan virus.’ ”
The words hurt Ling, who is Chinese American and grew up in California. When she saw how similar rhetoric led to a staggering surge in the number of attacks on Asian Americans in cities across the country, she was galvanized to act.
In the eighth season premiere episode of Ling’s CNN documentary series “This Is Life,” which recently debuted, she takes an intensely personal look at how prejudice against her community has a long and torturous history in the United States.
“The Legacy of Vincent Chin” is the first of eight installments that examine how today’s divisive and often intractable issues involving race, gender and equality are rooted in troubling events from the nation’s past.
The retrospective approach is partly due to health protocols that kept Ling from producing the immersive, long-form storytelling “This Is Life” delivered over its previous seasons (available on HBO Max).
“Our shows are very experiential, and we had to pivot because we couldn’t
do that,” Ling says. “I had this idea of being able to rely a little bit more on archival footage and not feeling like we had to be as close physically and intimately. We tried to pick events in history where you can draw a definitive line to where we are today.”
Ling’s first trip back in time takes viewers to 1982, when the country’s long-prosperous auto industry was disrupted by an influx of fuel-efficient imports from Japan. The despair over unemployment turned into hate and violence in Detroit, where Ronald Ebens, a Chrysler foreman, and his stepson Michael Nitz, a laid-off auto worker, hunted down Vincent Chin, 27, and bludgeoned him to death with a baseball bat.
Ling reconstructs the Chin case with archival news footage and an extensive interview with journalist and activist Helen Zia. Ling connects the activism Chin’s death sparked to the current movement combating violence toward Asian Americans.
“What is happening now is Asian Americans are actually communing and talking to each other about it and realizing that we’re not alone in this,” Ling says. “And that’s been, for me, a really powerful silver lining in all of this.”
Later in the season, Ling gets a first-hand look at gang violence in Chicago. Her entry point is a 1919 incident when a Black teenager was murdered after his raft drifted into an area of a Lake Michigan beach restricted to white people. The boy’s death led to deadly riots in Chicago and set in motion the cycle of racist economic and housing policies that led to the gang violence that still plagues the city today.
Ling also will explore the 1950s Cold War-era campaign to purge gay people from the U.S. government, known as “the Lavender Scare.”
She travels to Oklahoma to examine the “Reign of Terror” killings of Osage tribe members who flourished in the 1920s during the nation’s oil boom.
As the military’s handling of sexual harassment cases is being reexamined after the 2020 murder of Army soldier Vanessa Guillen, Ling revisits the Tailhook Scandal of 1991, when a convention of aviators ended
with at least 83 individuals assaulted in one weekend.
Ling’s stories are a reminder that social progress can be fragile.
“In this century, there have been moments where I’ve thought that Asians were really starting to gain traction,” Ling says. “In the last couple of years some incredible blockbuster movies came out featuring Asian casts. And then COVID struck, and it forced so many of us to really reckon with this country’s history and our sense of belonging here. A lot has changed, but in some ways this idea that Asian people have continued to be looked at as foreigners in our own home has not changed at all.”