Remembering Jeff Ansell, one helluva reporter

The Toronto journalist broke a lot of the rules about keeping your distance from the story. Jeff was all in, all the time
By Steve Paikin - Published on Feb 25, 2021
Jeff Ansell and the author in Jerusalem in the mid-’80s. (Courtesy of Steve Paikin)

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He had a classic broadcaster’s voice — deep, mellifluous, wondrous to listen to. I remember having dinner with him and Ken Daniels, the longtime voice of the Detroit Red Wings, one night. We’d all come up 35 years ago through local television in Toronto, and Ken and I loved teasing our pal Jeff about that voice.

“Jeff, are you ever not broadcasting?” Ken asked. “Do you talk that way when you’re at home having dinner with your wife? Do you say…” — and then Ken put on an even more exaggerated version of Jeff’s deep, booming voice — “Annie, pass the salt!”

We exploded in laughter, and that became our catchphrase every time we saw one another. I mean every time. Whenever I spoke to my pal Jeff, every conversation had to start with “Annie pass the salt!” It always put Jeff in a happy mood.

So when I called Jeff less than a week ago to ask him how his 21-month-long battle against cancer was going, of course I started our conversation when he picked up the phone with, “Annie pass the salt!”

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He was weak. So weak. That booming broadcast voice was gone. He was only five years older than me but sounded much older. But he laughed. And that’s all I wanted to hear. That laugh. Because during our previous call a few days earlier, we cried. Quite a lot.

two men side by side, one taking notes
Jeff Ansell (right) with Antoine Lahad, the leader of the South Lebanon Army. (Courtesy of Steve Paikin)

Jeff broke the news to me in that earlier call that he was losing his battle. He’d fought like crazy because he needed to stay alive — for Annie, for his two sons, for his two grandchildren, and to finish his final professional mission, writing his memoirs. They’d tried everything, but the battle was lost, and he knew it.

My cellphone rang on Tuesday afternoon, two days ago. I saw his name come up on the call display. I was thrilled thinking he had enough life left in him for one more call. I pushed the button to answer the phone and immediately used my go-to line, imitating my best, deepest Jeff Ansell voice.

“Annie, pass the salt!”

“Sorry, Stevie — no salt.”  It was Annie.  “He died this morning.”

Oh, God.

Jeff broke one of the cardinal rules of journalism when he and I were reporters in the 1980s — he at CITY-TV, I at CHFI-FM and then CBLT-TV. I always tried hard to keep my professional and emotional distance in every story I covered. That’s what we were taught to do.

Jeff wasn’t having any of that. He wore his emotions on his sleeve, and he brought them to every story. You didn’t like it? Tough. He was all in, all the time. Fortunately for him, he worked for CityPulse, which enjoyed breaking all the conventional rules of newsgathering. He was a great fit there.

Jeff was Jewish and hugely motivated to make the world a more just place. He did that by breaking big stories — for example, that Nazi war criminals were hiding in our midst in Ontario. We talked about his agonizing over whether he would shake hands with a one-time Nazi soldier, now an old man, when he got the chance to interview him. Jeff was so sociable, so tactile, such a dynamo. He’d shake hands with everyone he met, including homeless people he’d encounter in the streets. But he would not — could not — shake the hand of a Nazi war criminal.  

Jeff and I found ourselves in the Middle East in 1985, doing reports from Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, southern Lebanon, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. It didn’t matter who we were meeting. He took absolutely no guff from anyone. That takes a certain amount of guts when the people you’re talking to have guns. Jeff didn’t care.

Eventually, he got out of journalism and started his own communications consulting business. He ended up media training dozens of cabinet ministers, giving these newbies a crash course in how to handle vulturous members of the media. One time, I asked him how he did what he did.

“You want to try it?” he asked.

“Sure, I’m game,” I said.

a smiling white-haired man in glasses
Jeff Ansell's memoir is entitled
Who I Am After All. (Courtesy
​​​​​​​of Steve Paikin)

So I went down to his offices in Yorkville and let him put me through the same kind of training he’d put politicians through.   He played journalist, set up the camera, and started grilling me as if he were the second coming of Mike Wallace. He bullied. He interrupted. He accused. He badgered. I melted in my chair and threw in the towel. I guess any politician who could get through a Jeff Ansell training session without wetting their pants could handle the likes of Robert Fisher or Colin Vaughan at Queen’s Park.

They buried Jeff yesterday just north of Toronto, in Maple. Annie’s sister Sharon and Jeff’s two sons spoke.

“He was a humble, honest, kind, empathetic, generous, loving, true force of nature,” Sharon said. “This was the true essence of Jeff.”

Then, recalling his media training style, she added: “He’d pepper politicians with different questions and scare the living daylights out of them.” I can confirm that.

He loved Annie, and she knew it. She’d tell anyone, “He loves my ass!”

Jeff’s younger son, Josh, said his father often told him to treat all people with respect and to give to the less fortunate. He regarded homeless people “as a test from God.” And so he always gave them money. Sharon joked, “Thank goodness Annie was in charge of the finances or Jeff would have given all his money away.”

“It’s hard,” Josh concluded, “not to want to be a guy like Jeff Ansell.”

How good a friend was Jeff? His longtime pal Ben Steinfeld, who was my news director at CHFI in the early 1980s, got sick two decades ago and couldn’t work a full-time job anymore. But Jeff made sure Ben got some part-time writing work for him.

The tributes flooded in on Facebook. “I loved the energy and passion he had for communicating,” said veteran broadcaster Kevin Newman. “He cared about truth, helping people, and having fun.”

“I remember him well,” wrote Bob Rae, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations. “I’m very sorry to hear this news. He was a very fine man.”

“Jeff was the most objective, kind, and professional journalist that stood out from everyone else,” wrote Bill Fatsis, who ran for the Progressive Conservatives in the 1982 byelection in Broadview–Greenwood to replace Rae, who’d stepped down to become leader of the Ontario NDP.

Jeff media-trained former finance minister Charles Sousa during his time at Queen’s Park, helping him get his message out at budget time, and before that at RBC. “This is very sad news,” Sousa wrote. “He was a great guy.”

Former PC cabinet minister Janet Ecker told me via email: “Luckily I just sent him an email about two or three days ago. His son read it to him because he was too weak to do so himself.  His son said he was very pleased to get it. He was my media trainer and he was excellent.  I recommended him to many.  He probably saved my career at one point when my ministry got into trouble with the auditor.”

Sheldon Osmond, the director of The Agenda on TVO, worked with Jeff at CITY-TV back in the day. “I remember him often rushing into the newsroom, last minute, and ‘slamming’ a report together for the 6 o’clock news with seconds to spare.”

One of the people Jeff worked with at CITY-TV became Ontario’s 28th lieutenant-governor. “I was in Sunnybrook for my surgery the same time he was getting treatment,” David Onley emailed me earlier this week. “We hadn't seen each other in years and I am so glad we had the time to reminisce.”

Jeff knew time was running out last summer and began to write his memoirs. “I can’t tell you where he got the strength to do it,” Sharon said yesterday. The book is entitled Who I Am After All.

“He couldn’t stomach dying without his stories being heard,” added his older son, Adam.

Happily, Jeff did get to experience every author’s greatest joy. He got the book done in time to see it published, and he held a copy in his hands.

“We took turns reading it to him,” Adam said. They finished Tuesday morning at midnight, and then the family stood and gave him a big ovation.

The next morning, he died.

“When he saw that we’d heard everything we needed to hear, he said goodbye,” Adam said.

Jeff turned 65 years old last New Year’s Eve. And, even though he’s gone, I’m still going to lower my voice in “Ansellian fashion” and ask Annie to pass that salt next time I see her. Rest in peace, Jeff.

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