Jeff Ansell, who parlayed a journalism career into a lucrative business that coached executives in crisis management and massaging reputations, died on Feb. 23 in Toronto of cancer. He was 65.
A tenacious reporter whose work led to the shuttering of a Toronto nursing home and shone an early light on Ottawa’s lax prosecution of Nazi war criminals in Canada, he was recalled as a “smart, sincere, and hard-working guy with a million ideas” by Peter Shurman, a one-time radio executive, later an MPP, who first met Ansell in Montreal.
With his broadcasting background, Ansell “became a go-to for many executives who realized that a better understanding of the media would enhance their career,” said longtime Toronto public relations professional David Eisenstadt. “His training programs were solid. Those of us who competed with him for business admired his professionalism and training style.”
Writing on Ansell’s online memorial page, TVO mainstay Steve Paikin recalled that the two first met in the early 1980s when they were “street reporters” – Ansell for Citytv and Paikin for CHFI, then CBLT.
“My goodness, did I admire him!” Paikin wrote. “Jeff was so good at what he did. He brought such passion to the pursuit of truth in his reporting. Even all these years later, I can remember some of his best stories, such as drug pushing in the Parkdale neighbourhood of Toronto, and hunting for Nazis in Canada.
“Most of us are taught to keep our emotions out of our work, but that wasn’t Jeff,” Paikin went on. “He was all in and didn’t care who objected. I think our most memorable time together was a trip we took with several other journalists to the Middle East to report on the goings-on there. We met several leading figures in Israeli, Palestinian, and Lebanese politics. And as he was back in Toronto, Jeff took no guff from anyone.”
Indeed, former colleagues recalled a shoe-leather reporter of the old school but one who maintained a signature sense of humour.
He volunteered for several Jewish organizations, including B’nai Brith Canada, the Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre, and the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem.
“Anyone who called him, he’d do it,” said his wife, Annie.
He was born in Montreal to Moe and Beatrice Ansel (he added the extra “l” for broadcast punch) on Dec. 31, 1955, and was all of 17 when he landed his first broadcast job at CFMB, an ethnic radio station that broadcast in two dozen languages. He went on to announcing jobs at Montreal’s CKGM and CFCF. At 19, he moved to Toronto as a news broadcaster for CFTR and later at CHUM-AM and its FM sister station.
According to an online biography, in 1980, Ansell and his fellow CHUM reporter Tim Laing posed as drug addicts, wired with hidden microphones, to expose doctors accused of illicitly prescribing narcotics. The one-hour radio documentary, “Pillers of Parkdale,” was nominated for a Michener Award and the duo won a Radio-TV News Directors Association award.
Acting on a tip from the late Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, Ansell and reporter Paul Appleby then conducted a year-long investigation exposing two Nazi war criminals living in Canada, Haralds Puntulis and Helmut Rauca.
Their explosive story, emblazoned with a maple leaf and a swastika, appeared in the Aug. 28, 1982 edition of TODAY Magazine, a supplement in 18 Canadian newspapers.
Over four pages, it detailed the grisly war crimes of both men and the government’s wan efforts to nab them. Puntulis died in July 1982, just before the piece came out (“that’s one less name to clear,” the article dryly concluded). Perhaps arising from the story’s impact, Rauca was extradited from Canada the following May and died in prison while awaiting trial.
Ansell then joined Citytv as a reporter and news anchor. In a 12-month investigation, he uncovered abuse at a Toronto-area nursing home, resulting in the closure of the St. Raphael Nursing Home and prompting changes to the Ontario Nursing Homes Act.
But like some journalists, he succumbed to his conscience.
“Being a vulture started to bother me,” he recalled in 2019. The defining moment came during one slow news day: A child had been in an accident and 10 minutes before airtime, a producer burst into the room saying, “good news, the child died. And the room cheered,” recalled Ansell. “I quit that night.”
He carved out a new career “training people to deal with people like me.”
In 1987, he left Citytv to open his own company, Public Eye Network, which produced video news releases, TV shows, and offered media training. Following a stint at the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton, he created Jeff Ansell & Associates, specializing in media and presentation training, and providing strategic communications advice to a variety of blue-chip companies.
“Always know how to come across,” he advised executives. “Too often, we go into autopilot. You always have to know how you want others to see and perceive you.” Always be prepared for the worst, he counseled, and he would frighten clients by posing the type of unhinged questions reporters often ask.
In 2010, Ansell and Jeffrey Leeson authored When the Headline is YOU: An Insider’s Guide to Handling the Media.
“Knowing how to talk to reporters is like learning a new language,” the authors advised, adding, presciently, “it may seem as if speaking the truth should be enough to build credibility and trust, but that’s rarely the case.”
He completed his memoirs, due out this summer, only hours before he died. Ansell is survived by his wife Annie, children Adam and Liana, and Joshua, and grandchildren Mia and Jake.