People pass the News Corp. headquarters building and Fox News studios in New York in 2017. (Richard Drew/AP)
Media critic

SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ. — Fox News announced in late April that it would hold an “inaugural summit” for subscribers of its streaming service Fox Nation here in Maricopa County, home to a majority of Arizona’s Republicans. “During the event, both subscribers and fans will have an opportunity to pitch programming ideas to FOX Nation producers for a chance to win a trip to New York City and film a pilot production of their show,” noted a release on the event.

Fun proceedings notwithstanding, Fox News decided to close it to the press. Why? Did it worry that no one would come?

If so, it needn’t have. An hour before Tuesday’s fete, hundreds of Fox News/Fox Nation devotees were bunched in a queue alongside the W Hotel in Scottsdale, awaiting entry to an affair that included the taping of a Fox Nation show, a Pop-a-Shot duel between Fox News’s Pete Hegseth and Fox Nation lifestyle/sports host Abby Hornacek, and lots of sidebar discussions of politics.

Not all attendees were local, either. Bill and Donna Cherry of Plainfield, Ind., drove across the country “mainly” to check in with their No. 1 cable-news network. “We like 'em all,” said Bill Cherry, referring to the prime-time lineup on Fox News.

People don’t drive more than 1,600 miles — or even a few hours — to wait in 90-plus-degree heat to commune with a brand about which they feel ambivalent. During interviews with dozens of Fox Nation “inaugural summit” attendees, the Erik Wemple Blog marveled at just how deeply these fans engage with the product. “You’re the guy on the mug, right?” asked one of the line-standers when we passed through. The man was referring to the so-called Erik Wemple mug, a coffee mug emblazoned with our likeness from a 2017 appearance on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” Tucker Carlson distributes these items to the winners of his weekly news quiz.

Several Fox Nation attendees, having made a similar connection, asked the Erik Wemple Blog to do selfies. Strictly as a matter of full disclosure, one attendee commented, “You’re just so much better-looking in person than you are on the mug.”

Hal Netkin, 83, recited almost verbatim a monologue presented the previous night by Carlson on Democratic policy regarding the extension of health care to illegal immigrants. “The Democratic Party has abandoned any pretense that America exists to benefit Americans. They tell us our country is innately evil, that it was conceived in racism for the purpose of oppression, we are a sinful nation. And to redeem ourselves, we must sacrifice for the world’s poor, among many, many, many other things. This means paying the health-care bills of foreign nationals who have no right to be here in the first place,” said Netkin.

“Absolutely the greatest,” said Netkin of Carlson. “I thought that when [Bill] O’Reilly was put out, that was going to be the end of Fox News.” There was a great deal of such sentiment in the Fox Nation queue, not to mention resentment that O’Reilly was fired in April 2017 after the New York Times reported on his multiple settlements with female colleagues for allegations of abuse and sexual harassment. “You know, who cares?” said 63-year-old Linda Gerchick, a commercial real estate broker in Arizona. “Everybody can say somebody got touched wrong or something … and immediately their lives are ruined.”

Even as they rued O’Reilly’s departure, many fans extolled Carlson as a genuine, authentic and funny replacement. The comments square with this blog’s diagnosis of Fox News as the plug-in network, where loyalty to the banner is so strong that the leadership can swap personnel without missing a beat.

One fan referred to Carlson as a “madman” — and not in a disparaging way. “He’s so authentic; you don’t have to worry about what he’s saying 'cause it’s from the heart. He’s not acting,” said the man. A woman nearby said of the host: “I love Tucker … because he is genuine and he laughs like a girl. I like that.”

Fox Nation represents the company’s attempt to extend its reach into the bottomless world of Internet video streaming. It’s built on the premise that Fox News viewers adore the opinion hosts on the network, a phenomenon for which there is plenty of supportive data: The prime-time shows of Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham are the network’s top-rated offerings. The promotional tagline for Fox Nation is “opinion done right.”

To judge from Fox Nation fan commentary, the network is correct to bet that people will consume more. It’s “on from the time we wake up in the morning till we go to bed at night,” said one attendee of Fox News. Gerchick said, “I keep Fox News on my office all day long.” Yet another: “It’s on 24/7,” said the fan. “What else is there?”

Fox News’s iconic branding statement “fair and balanced” surfaces repeatedly in conversations with the network’s devotees. Many, however, don’t care much for the crew that attempts, often with little success, at actually injecting some balance into the proceedings. “His voice is so irritating, I have to turn it off,” said 53-year-old Anita Thomas of Tucson, referring to the afternoon host Shepard Smith, an anchor who has counterprogrammed a lot of the Trump propaganda on the opinion hours. Another voice from the crowd said he liked Fox Nation because it allowed him to sidestep voices like Smith’s and liberal Juan Williams. “I’ll tell you right off the bat: There’s no … what’s her name from the Democratic Party? There are no liberals. We don’t have the equal balanced stuff,” said the man.

One attendee, 62-year-old Joann Smith, did express fondness for Donna Brazile, the former Democratic Party leader hired recently to spar with the Fox News establishment. Her idea is to replace Williams, a panelist on the afternoon show “The Five,” with Brazile. Smith had come all the way from Ohio to share her opinions on such matters.

You have to wonder: If CNN, for example, announced a summit for its fans, would anyone travel so far to talk about John Berman? Or Erin Burnett?

As a postscript: Fox News relented on its barring of media at the Fox Nation event. When we arrived at the check-in location, the Fox Nation team waved us through with fine cheer and full knowledge that a member of the media was entering the party zone. It was a well-executed affair, and one attendee at the night’s conclusion told us she was happy to have been face-to-face with her favorite network’s personalities — an experience that aligns with the motivation for holding the summit in the first place. Had the Erik Wemple Blog been declared Fox News CEO for a day, we would have pestered media reporters to attend.

Read more from Erik Wemple:

Fox News is afraid of the Erik Wemple Blog

Warren gives Fox News a debate it didn’t ask for

How Fox News distorts the news: A Mueller case study

Donna Brazile and Fox News need each other