In case you were otherwise occupied last night (we certainly were), Fox News aired what Alan Colmes teased as co-host Sean Hannity’s “rare and exclusive” interview with Vice President Dick Cheney.

Hannity — seated across from Cheney in a contrived barn-like setting somewhere in Ohio beside a bale of hay and several pots of autumnal yellow Mums — had a 20-minute audience with the vice president, ample time to dig in and ask some hard-hitting questions that might, less than two weeks out, provide the undecided among Fox viewers some revealing insights.

And how did Hannity use this “rare” opportunity? To practice a little softball, that’s how. Grinning like a sycophantic acolyte, he grilled Cheney with questions such as, “Are you happy with the [latest poll] numbers?” and, “Who do you think won the debates?” and, “How do you [and President Bush] make decisions with each other?” and, “And, you’re healthy?” (CNN’s Tucker Carlson, who last week faulted comedian Jon Stewart for “sucking up” to John Kerry rather than asking him “real questions,” must be up in arms this morning).

Of Hannity’s all-told 26 “questions,” several were not actually “questions,” but rather limp statements with question marks at the end. (The hard-charging opener was, “You’re in the home stretch?”) And when Hannity wasn’t tossing puffballs to the Vice President, he was kindly serving as the set-up man for Cheney talking points and/or the rebuttal of his opponent’s talking points. Does it “bother” Cheney, Hannity asked at one point, “when you have Al Gore screaming at the top of his lungs that you and the president betrayed their country. You have 527 groups that compare the president to Hitler” [see here for what’s wrong with this bit] and if so, “what do you say to them?” [These things do bother Cheney, we learned.]

Often, in the wind-up to a question, Hannity repeated Bush/Cheney talking points and catch phrases as facts, or truths, or givens. Here’s a sample: “The president yesterday mentioned the shameless scare tactics that are being used by the Democrats and more particularly John Kerry, who is now out on the stump, regularly saying that there’s a big January surprise. [“Right,” Cheney agreed.]

Later, Hannity invited Cheney to himself scare viewers when he posed this question: “We are less than two weeks out of an election. We saw what happened in Spain. How concerned are you?” Finally, at question 21, Hannity asked Cheney about something scary he said on the stump — or, in Hannity’s gentle words, “the little bit of controversy in early September when you said if we make the wrong choice America could get hit again,” which he followed with, “How do you really feel?”

Political candidates are going to answer reporters’ questions with talking points no matter what — no need to enable it, to set them up to do so.

Then again, such “reporting” can pay dividends. Tune in soon for Hannity’s “rare and exclusive” interview with President George W. Bush.

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.