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The Canonization of Rich DeVos: Even in death the news media acts as stenographers to power

September 7, 2018

It has begun. With Thursday morning’s announcement of Richard DeVos Sr.’s death, the news media has already begun to canonize the billionaire co-founder of Amway.

This treatment of DeVos was expected, since for years the news media, particularly the West Michigan news media, has acted as stenographers to the most powerful family in the area.

The narrative that the news media has crafted around Rich DeVos and his family has been decades in the making, as we have documented over the years. The narrative that has been created is similar to what Sarah Schulman calls the “gentrification of the mind” or what the great revolutionary thinker Franz Fanon referred to as the “colonization of the mind.”

This colonizing of our minds, in the case of the Rich DeVos, has much to do with how we are taught about the capitalist myth of the self-made man. We are taught very early that people like Rich DeVos made their money without anyone’s help. In addition, the news media in West Michigan has been telling us since the 1970s that Grand Rapids would not be what it is if it weren’t for Rich DeVos. This cumulative impact of a specific narrative is important for our understanding of how so many people have embraced this belief and why it is so important to think about the narrative that the news media has created about Rich DeVos.

Stenographers to Power

There have been numerous stories in the national news media, including the New York Times and the Washington Post.

However, it is more relevant to focus on the West Michigan media, since they have had a more intimate relationship with the DeVos family and have been reporting on the family for decades.

One thing that I found instructive, was just how quickly the Grand Rapids-based news media had constructed a narrative about Rich DeVos. The MLive story was posted at 11:00am on Thursday, just a few hours after it was announced that DeVos died. Not only was it instructive to see how quickly the local news media crafted these stories, it was also instructive about how much media has been crafted in such a short time. This not only includes a written narrative, but dozens of photos and video. Now, it is certainly possible that the local news media already had something created in anticipation of his death and some might say that is just journalism being prepared. However, it doesn’t take into account the consistency in the narrative about Rich DeVos. It’s as if the news media talked to each other and agreed that they were all going to do nothing but celebrate the Amway co-founder in whatever stories they produced.

All of the local news outlets have put forth a similar narrative about Rich DeVos, whether we are talking about MLive, WOOD TV 8, WZZM 13 or WXMI 17. Here is a list of themes constructed by the news media about Rich DeVos

  • He was a successful businessman.
  • He made his own wealth.
  • He and his family are generous contributors to charity.
  • Rich DeVos revitalized downtown Grand Rapids.
  • He was a major contributor to the Republican Party and other conservative causes.
  • Rich DeVos helped GVSU move from a college to a university.
  • He became a sports owner in the 90s by purchasing the Orlando Magic basketball team.
  • He was a motivational speaker.

Now, there were a few references in the local news coverage that made it seems as if the coverage was balanced. Amway business practices were discussed in terms of the claims of the Canadian government that the company engaged in fraud, but this was settled and Amway agreed to pay a fine. However, those who have challenged the narrative about Amway have not limited their criticism to just the Canadian incident, they have looked at the business structure and the corporate culture as well. For a further investigation of this, please see the book Amway: the cult of free enterprise, by Stephen Butterfield. 

There was also some reference to DeVos being on President Reagan’s AIDS Task Force in the 1987. However, this reference on MLive just mentioned that activists protested this appointment and then quoted DeVos saying, “That was probably one of the most difficult years of my life. It was the first time I began to not sleep at night. It wasn’t so much the criticism. It was the enormity of the problem and the people who were suffering with it. I think it raised my sensitivity. I became far less critical.”

Apart from these few mild criticisms, the rest has all been media pundits and other influential people gushing about what a great man Rich DeVos was. WOOD TV 8 political reporter Rick Albin kept talking about how DeVos remade the city of Grand Rapids and they kept showing a clip of DeVos saying that this was his town……without any irony on their part. 

Then there was Catherine Behrendt with WZZM 13, who also spoke about DeVos. Behrendt spoke of him as if he was a saint and then did a walk down memory lane with some video footage of her and Rich in his home showing her pictures and allowing her to be there while he was exercising on the treadmill.

However, maybe the most disgusting display of stenography by the local news media was not only their reading of the DeVos family statement, but the inclusion of several tweets from grandson and founder of ArtPrize, Rick DeVos. And it is important to note that the TV stations in particular did not just read these tweets at one point in their coverage, they kept going back to tweets from Rick DeVos throughout their coverage.

One other demonstration of the news media’s complicity in canonizing Rich DeVos, is the fact that WOOD TV 8, at the bottom of their main story on DeVos, included a link to an RDV Corp website that tells the story of Rich DeVos.

On Monday, we will provide a counter-narrative to the life of Rich DeVos in an article we are tentatively calling, An Honest Obituary for Rich DeVos. In the meantime, check out our DeVos Family Reader entitled, We’re Rich and We Do What We Want if you want information that is not filtered by the commercial media.

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