How The 3 Biggest New Stories of the Year Come Together To Explain 2019

Why Jeffrey Epstein, the Boeing 737 Max, and the Hong Kong Protests captivated our attention and what they say about our times.

Boeing 737 Max / Jeffrey Epstein / Hong Kong Protests
Photo: JP Valery, Unsplash / / Joseph Chan, Unsplash

Come this time of year, publications all of shapes and sizes release their year-in-review and best-of lists, but nothing quite captures the year we just lived through quite like the news stories that dominated our collective attention.

When, in October 2017, the New York Times and New Yorker broke the story of the sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein, they opened the floodgates that would turn #MeToo into one of the biggest stories of our era.

Day after day, week after week, famous men from various industries had their sexual misconduct exposed, and there was a constant feeling of: Who’s next? You just knew that more was coming, and I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when those stories broke.

That continued into 2018, which saw Brett Kavanaugh reach the United States Supreme Court despite several credible allegations of sexual misconduct against him. In 2019, we got more of the same.

Michael Jackson, R. Kelly, & Jeffrey Epstein

While they took place many years ago, the allegations against Michael Jackson and R. Kelly, two of the most influential musicians of their times, were brought back into the spotlight courtesy of two documentaries: Leaving Neverland and Surviving R. Kelly.

The allegations against the two men were, to say the least, on the higher end of the sexual misconduct spectrum, made worse by their respective levels of fame and notoriety, as well as history. All of that remains true for the most notorious man of the year: Jeffrey Epstein.

Accused of abusing scores of young girls, the tentacles of Epstein’s reach are as close to boundless and they can get. Epstein dominated news cycles for months because his vast wealth left us wondering what he was capable of and the network of powerful men he surrounded himself with forced us to investigate who else was involved. His premature, questioned, and memeified, death left us with only more questions.

Jeffrey Epstein was arguable the worst of the worst. Harvey Weinstein was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Epstein was wealthier, had greater reach, and used both of those to commit even more aggregious crimes, in even greater numbers. The increased appeal of conspiracy theories in recent times only made it all that much harder to look away.

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The Boeing 737 Max Catastrophe

One positive side-effect of the #MeToo movement is that it’s made us all much more skeptical about those in power. That was also on display this year when it came to politicians and technology companies, both of which came together when a second Boeing 737 Max crashed, leaving no survivors.

It’s well-known, particularly in the media business, that bad news sells. That goes twofold for bad news involving planes. Maybe it’s the nightmare of being helpless in a metal tube 30,000 feet in the air that we can all relate to, but nothing captures our attention quite like a mystery involving a plane. (See: the 2014 disappearance of Flight MH370.)

I myself am guilty of this, as I now know almost more about the inner workings of the Boeing 737 Max than I do about cars. In a tidy nutshell, a technical feature called the MCAS was introduced into Boeing’s new line of aircrafts. It was branded as a minor feature, but it ended up being critical to both 737 Max crashes.

If your spidey-senses are tingling, then your senses are well-tuned, because Boeing had a shockingly-large role in the two crashes. Production of the plane was rushed to compete with AirBus. The approval process involving the Federal Aviation Administration was shoddy. The MCAS feature was undersold in significance, and neglected in training. We were skeptical of businesses to begin with, and Boeing proved our inclinations correct.

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The Hong Kong Protest

Both the #MeToo and Boeing stories have worldwide impact, uniting men, women, and children around the globe against sexual misconduct and corporate malfeasance. Many around the globe were also united in their civil unrest and dissatisfaction with government.

Protests occurred across the globe, in places like the Czech Republic, Chile, and Venezuela, but none have stuck around in the news cycle quite like those in Hong Kong. The protests took form in early June, peaked during the summer, then escalated in the fall, even drawing in the NBA in a way that almost caused an international incident, all thanks to a tweet by a team’s GM.

The protests around the world all began in their own ways, but eventually they all became about the same thing: better government. The Hong Kong protests began as a protest against extradition to China and have since evolved into a multi-pronged protest with several demands, the most significant of which is the universal right to vote.

This was the year of the protest. Aside from the aforementioned protests, there were the Climate Strikes around the globe, primarily inspired and led by teenager Greta Thunberg. This year’s protests also showed how much the act of protesting has evolved. Thanks to technology, it’s now significantly easier to organize, and it’s now also viable for protests to go without a front-facing leader. The times are changing, and so are our tools.

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All three of the above stories are ongoing, and have been for at least half of the year. They captured our collective attention for a reason, so it’s important to think about why that is. It’s also important because history has, time and time again, proven to be an excellent teacher, and what’s past is prologue.

All of these stories are incredibly complex and affect and appeal to us in their own individual ways, but the through-line of them all and why they resonated with us this year can perhaps be summed up best by a quote from Sidney Lumet’s iconic 1976 film Network, in which protagonist Howard Beale repeats time and time again: I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.

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I strive towards a career that ends up leaving me somewhere between Howard Beck and Howard Beale.

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