Fox News tough guy Sean Hannity assured us this week he would press Sarah Palin for real answers -- no going easy on the woman who could be the next vice president of the United States.
"No topic," Hannity intoned, "is off limits."
A couple of nights earlier, Fox's hard-talking lawyer, Greta Van Susteren, promised to take us to unknown places in her exclusive interview with Alaska's so-called First Dude, Todd Palin.
"You will see this," Greta declared, "nowhere else!"
No, you won't. And mercifully so. Because Hannity and Van Susteren produced three nights of infotainment so frothy, slanted and off-point that they challenged even their cable network's low standards.
Fox boss man Roger Ailes would desperately like to have his stepchild accepted into the family of respected news sources. And the reporters who deliver many of Fox's reports have been known to battle their employer's partisan biases.
But given a chance to
address real issues, and possibly even make news in two encounters with America's most intriguing couple, Fox instead condescended to
both Palins, with Van Susteren's cringe-worthy paean to Arctic beauty and Todd Palin's machismo, and Hannity's weak-kneed idolization of Alaska's governor.
First, let's look at the two sessions on "Hannity & Colmes," where the host had the responsibility of interviewing a politician who aspires to help lead the nation and who is likely to subject herself to few unscripted moments between now and election day.
Sinking to the occasion, Hannity lobbed softball questions, led his pliant subject to safe responses and not so subtly sprinkled his queries with barbs aimed at Barack Obama.
He left the questions many Americans have about Palin's record to the end, then signaled that the "so-called controversies" weren't worthy of serious consideration.
At one point Hannity rhapsodized about Alaska's low taxes and actually added: "I have to move to Alaska."
I hadn't felt so queasy since the women of ABC's "The View" wriggled in their seats and giggled gleefully as Obama visited last spring.
Barbara Walters praised the young prince for his "passion, charisma and call for change," not to mention his "very sexy" looks. But at least "The View" ladies allowed Elisabeth Hasselbeck to pepper Obama with questions about his controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.
And that was daytime TV.
Newsman Hannity would countenance no such unpleasantness this week during his precious hour. He smiled dreamily at Palin and said he wished he had more time. And the Republican governor -- hair down, smiling, relaxed -- clearly knew she was playing on her home court.
The Fox commentator wasted no time in priming the partisan pump -- suggesting that Obama's recent statements on the economy were for "political gain" and that his call for higher taxes on the rich amounted to "class warfare."
If Fox had intended a probing interview, it wouldn't have assigned one of its most contentious mouthpieces.
Wouldn't Brit Hume have asked Palin to clarify, for example, her inane assertion that the ability to see Russia from her state's far western shore somehow helped her understand that country?
How about pressing the governor when (like Obama) she ducked a straightforward question about whether insurance giant AIG should receive a government bailout?
Where was Hannity's incredulity when Palin lapsed into amnesia, again, when asked about her initial support of the "bridge to nowhere"?
If I had been thinking clearly, I would have known this interview would have nothing to do with journalism and everything to do with buttressing the Fox brand.
Much as John McCain secured his conservative "base" by choosing Sarah Barracuda in the first place, Fox played to its most loyal fans by leaving uncontested the view of Palin as a charming and accomplished everywoman.
Van Susteren made that strategy even more apparent during her embarrassing interview with Palin's husband, in which she seemed to morph into a cheerleader. Go Wasilla High Warriors! Go Todd!
Todd, don't you know, helped build his own home! Flies his own float plane! Fishes for sockeye! Drives his snow machine 112 miles an hour!
Palin somehow maintained his composure and dignity in the face of this frenetic new fan.
At one point, perhaps trying to gently guide his interviewer toward a substantive question, he noted that he had worked to improve Alaska's vocational training programs. But Van Susteren, determined to treat her subject as Klondike Jack, ignored that segue into actual public policy.
She sighed about the spectacular view from Todd's doorstep lake.
"They love you here! They love you here!" Van Susteren fairly squealed, as the First Dude smiled sheepishly. "So that must be fun for you!"
Never mind asking Palin about his role in "Troopergate," the investigation into whether his wife tried to use her high office to have her ex-brother-in-law, a state trooper, fired. Never mind asking Palin whether his First Dudeliness, who appears to have involved himself deeply in some Alaska policy matters, might play a similar role on, say, national security issues, if his wife is sent to Washington.
Going to a final station break, it seemed as if Van Susteren was not promoting her next segment, but announcing a Palin skit on "Saturday Night Live."
"Coming up," Van Susteren trumpeted, " . . . you will hear why the Palins' freezer is sometimes packed with moose and caribou!
"How does it taste? Todd will tell you!"