In a post-election analysis, media research firm mediaQuant calculated that Donald Trump earned approximately $4.96 billion in “free” media – compared to just $3.24 billion for Hillary Clinton, and $1.15 billion and $0.7 billion from Obama and Romney in 2012 respectively. “Free” media refers to all media not directly paid for through advertising – examples include online articles, television and radio interviews, broadcasts of campaign rallies, print articles, blog and forum posts, and social media. However, no media is truly free – in Donald Trump’s case, much of his media attention was “earned” through his bombastic remark, abhorrent behavior, and ability to incite rallying cries with racist, xenophobic, sexist, and hateful rhetoric. The media chose to give Mr. Trump air-time because he brought in the ears, eyes, and clicks of the nation – some of whom found security and comfort through his fear mongering, many fearfully seeing him as a dangerous demigod comparable to history’s most horrific leaders, and yet others finding his efforts futile and humorous.
In terms of broadcast media, Trump just narrowly outgained Clinton in “free” media. Still, in a 24-hour TV news format, Trump’s coverage was enormous. According to The GDELT Project’s Presidential Election 2016 Candidate Television Tracker, Donald Trump’s name was mentioned by TV news stations at least three times as frequently as the next candidate since July of 2015. Clinton’s mentions would eventually catch up as we neared the general election, however Trump would on average have substantially more mentions than Clinton on any given day leading up to the election. In a conversation at Harvard University back in October, CNN’s President Jeff Zucker said he had no regrets about how his network covered Mr. Trump and acknowledged that his campaign was a ratings machine. As a bit of a half-measure, Zucker admitted that if he could change one thing about his network's spotlight on Trump’s presidential campaign, he would have shown fewer Trump “campaign rallies in those early months unedited.” He added, “I think in hindsight, we shouldn’t have done that as much.” While several news outlets did work tirelessly to reveal the lies and flip-flops of Trump’s candidacy, the oversaturation of seemingly non-stop Trump coverage helped launch and legitimize his candidacy and vindicate his supporters. Despite its role in Trump’s eventual rise to the presidency, he would nonetheless grow to despise and condemn the very same attention that made his victory possible, urging his supporters away from mainstream media.