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How Media Reports on the death of Billionaires: Helen DeVos

October 20, 2017

One can learn a great deal by paying attention to how the commercial news media reports on those who are part of the power structure, whether they are national or local.

In 2011, we wrote a critique of the news media’s coverage of the death of Fred Meijer, saying essentially that the news media in West Michigan had canonized the billionaire. We also pointed out that from 2007, when the world was in an economic free fall, through 2010, Fred Meijer had increased his wealth by 150%, totally $5 billion by 2010.

Despite Fred Meijer’s otherworldly wealth, the West Michigan news media chose to focus on his philanthropic activities. This tells us that the local news media do not question:

  • How people acquire their wealth.
  • The role and function of foundations or philanthropy.
  • What impact philanthropy has on systemic change.
  • And they generally ignore or keep separate the influence that philanthropists have on public policy.

On Wednesday, Helen DeVos, the wife of Amway co-founder Rich DeVos, passed away. On Thursday, the West Michigan news media began to eulogize Helen DeVos, much in the same manner as they did Fred Meijer of Jay Van Andel in recent years. One MLive article provided a platform for those who are part of the power structure to voice their thoughts on the death of Helen DeVos, including Gov. Snyder, Rep. Justin Amash, some local CEOs, grandson Rick DeVos and Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalyn Bliss. This article also included a tribute video to Helen DeVos created by MLive staffers.

Wood TV 8, WZZM 13  and WXMI 17 all had variations on the same kind of reporting, with nothing but glowing remarks about her generosity. 

In the primary article from MLive, the reporter provides an overview of the life of Helen DeVos, with a list of awards she won, her relationship to her family and the charitable causes she was involved in. One comment from her youngest son, Doug DeVos, is particularly telling.

“She saw the money as a tool to support causes close to her heart. The DeVos family has given away more than $1.2 billion over the years, a majority of the donations coming from the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation.”

Doug DeVos’ comment is instructive for two main reasons. First, he tries to minimize the vast amount of wealth that Rich and Helen had amassed over the years and get us to believe that it did really have any impact on her. Second, Doug points on the amount of money his mom and dad’s foundation has contributed over the years. Let’s take a look at that for a moment.

While most of the eulogizing focuses on the funding that Helen DeVos gave to the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, it ignores so many other entities that were the recipients of funding from the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation.

The Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation has contributed money to organizations that are blatantly anti-LGBTQ, such as the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church and Focus on the Family. While doing research for the Grand Rapids LGBTQ People’s History Project, we discovered that their foundation threatened to withhold funding if the University was going to move forward with providing domestic partner benefits to faculty and staff. GVSU decided to take the money and then wait another 13 years before they agreed to provide domestic partner benefits.

The Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation has also provided millions of dollars to organizations that are deeply committed to waging class war and standing on the side of those who are already wealthy. The couple’s foundation has given millions to each of the following politically right think tanks:

Heritage Foundation 

American Enterprise Institute 

Mackinac Center for Public Policy 

Acton Institute 

However, their foundation funding pales in comparison to the political contributions that Richard and Helen DeVos have made over the years. The Michigan Campaign Finance Network reported earlier this year that the DeVos Family has contributed $82 million since 1999. A great deal of that has come from Rich and Helen, which have been making large donations to candidates and the GOP for over 40 years.

If you spend time searching the database at the Center for Responsive Politics, you can see the vast amounts of money Helen and Rich DeVos have spent to buy political influence. Search the 49503 zip code and you see that most of the names that come up are Rich and Helen DeVos. The image below is just a sampling from the 2016 Election Cycle.

At the state level, you can look at a previous posting we did, which looked at how the DeVos Family had contributed to candidates who introduce policies that have become law. For instance, in 2015, DeVos money helped to pass HB 4052, a law that takes away local control. Why is this relevant, because powerful entities like the DeVos family do not want local communities adopting policies like a living wage, regulations against wage theft or adopting anti-discrimination ordinances that would include or add anti-discrimination protections for the LGBT community. 

A second example signed into law in 2015 was HB 4188. This legislation, often framed as a religious freedom bill, would allow adoption agencies in Michigan the ability to deny LGBT couples/partners/families from adopting.

All of this is to say that Helen DeVos, like all the other members of the family, do significant harm through their wealth, both in the form of foundation given and political contributions. In more honest days, people did not mourn the deaths of local oligarchies or the robber barons in their community, they celebrated their deaths.

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