FALSE EQUIVALENCY WATCH…. With Saturday’s shootings sparking some discussion on rhetorical excesses and the toxicity of our discourse, Fox News is feeling a little defensive.

Roger Ailes, president of the Republican network, offered the usual defense — insisting that Jared Lee Loughner “was not attached” to Tea Partiers — and said the criticism of Fox News is “just a bullshit way to use the death of a little girl to get Fox News in an argument.”

But also Ailes went a little further, making two related points. The first is that he claims to have told his network’s on-air talent to “shut up, tone it down, make your argument intellectually,” and urged Fox News’ team to stay away from “bombast.” The second is that Ailes is convinced that “the Democrat [sic] Party” is just as bad: “This goes on … both sides are wrong.” Ailes added that he hopes “the other side” tells its team to tone down the rhetoric, too.

On the first point, I rather doubt that Ailes actually told guys like Beck and Hannity to avoid “bombast,” just as I rather doubt they’d listen if he did. If Ailes actually expected Fox News personalities to “tone it down” and make “intellectual” arguments, he might as well shut the network down today.

But on the second, Ailes seems to be repeating a common refrain — there are rhetorical excesses on “both sides.” There’s “plenty of blame to go around.” It’s not the fault of “one side over the other.”

To a certain extent, this is independent of the coverage of the massacre in Tucson, since we don’t the extent to which Loughner was motivated by political bile. But whether he was influenced by the political climate or not, this notion that Dems and the GOP are equally responsible for over-the-top rhetoric is simply at odds with reality. Paul Krugman’s column today makes the case persuasively.

Where’s that toxic rhetoric coming from? Let’s not make a false pretense of balance: it’s coming, overwhelmingly, from the right. It’s hard to imagine a Democratic member of Congress urging constituents to be “armed and dangerous” without being ostracized; but Representative Michele Bachmann, who did just that, is a rising star in the G.O.P.

And there’s a huge contrast in the media. Listen to Rachel Maddow or Keith Olbermann, and you’ll hear a lot of caustic remarks and mockery aimed at Republicans. But you won’t hear jokes about shooting government officials or beheading a journalist at The Washington Post. Listen to Glenn Beck or Bill O’Reilly, and you will.

Of course, the likes of Mr. Beck and Mr. O’Reilly are responding to popular demand…. But even if hate is what many want to hear, that doesn’t excuse those who pander to that desire. They should be shunned by all decent people.

Even today, just perusing the news, I’ve seen many make the “both sides” argument by pointing to posting from a pseudonymous diarist on Daily Kos who few, if any, had heard of before. The response seems pretty obvious: when “BoyBlue” has his own cable show, develops a sizable following, and begins organizing rallies on the Washington mall, get back to me.

I realize major media outlets feel contractually obligated to embrace the false equivalency, but folks should know better. Remember the Senate candidate who recommended “Second Amendment remedies“? How about the congressional candidate who fired shots at a silhouette with his opponent’s initials on it? Or maybe the congressional candidate who declared, “If I could issue hunting permits, I would officially declare today opening day for liberals. The season would extend through November 2 and have no limits on how many taken as we desperately need to ‘thin’ the herd”? Or how about the congressional candidate who said he considered the violent overthrow of the United States to government an “option” and added that political violence is “on the table”?

All four of these examples came from 2010 — and all came from Republican candidates for federal elected office. And this doesn’t even get into Republican activists and media personalities.

“Both sides are wrong”? Yeah, sure they are.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.