Media critic Jay Rosen regularly critiques the media for getting the viewpoints of "both sides" and then "leaving it there." It's a good critique, because often in a debate, one side is just making stuff up. Liberals often point to the climate debate, where many questions are up for debate (such as long-term consequences, the importance of various factors, the appropriate policy response), but some conservatives get away with claiming that everything -- including whether humans have any effect on climate -- is up for debate.
Today the clearest example of a B.S. debate is whether right-wing rhetoric played a role in the mass shooting in Tuscon. On one side are conservatives (such as Brooks, Buchanan, and Douthat) pointing out that Loughner was crazy, the political debate was happening in his own head, that he was a registered independent who hadn't voted, and that his objection to Giffords had nothing to do with policy or even ideology. On the other side are evidence-free slurs from the likes of Paul Krugman.
Yet USA Today treats it as a debatable point, citing this as one viewpoint:
However, some Republican leaders and conservative activists rejected the suggestion that their hard-edged language on issues such as health care and immigration could fairly be tied to Saturday's attack by a gunman in Tucson....
Will USA Today ask Paul Krugman about the suggestion his blogging could be fairly tied to the nine killings in P.G. County already this year.
The Guardian also reported on "a fierce debate over whether inflammatory rightwing rhetoric was to blame for a shooting spree in Tucson."
Jonah Goldberg covered this same topic in a blog post:
Unlike, say, the issues of mental illness or gun control, there is no fair-minded reason to turn this into a debate about Palin. There is simply no known basis in fact that Loughner was inspired by Palin’s map or any of the other alleged incitements.
Feeling that it should be otherwise is not a legitimate reason to say it is otherwise. And every journalistic outfit who thinks they’re being fair by covering the “debate” evenhandedly misses this basic point. You can’t cover a debate that shouldn’t exist in the first place “fairly.”
So, let's hope the media is grownup enough to realize that this is no debate with points and counterpoints. The two sides here are smear, and defense against a smear.