There are the tapes, which may be truthful. There is the dress, possibly stained -- or is it just a T-shirt?
There could be witnesses, perhaps Secret Service agents. There were the White House visits, maybe late at night. There is the presidential deposition, which may contain an admission of previous transgressions.
Rarely has there been a news story in which the stakes are so great, the coverage so massive -- and the solid evidence so scarce.
As soon as the story of White House intern Monica Lewinsky and President Clinton engulfed airwaves, newsprint and cyberspace 11 days ago, journalists began to speculate about impeachment.
Yet the allegations come chiefly from the ghostly, often anonymous "sources" who haunt every news report, offering tantalizing but unproven nuggets that are cycled and recycled by news organizations.
According to a computer database search, 1,843 press, television and wire service reports on the Lewinsky affair in the first eight days of the scandal usedthe words "source" or "sources."
Media critics say the scramble for scoops has lowered journalistic standards across the board, with thousands of reporters producing few irrefutable facts to cling to amid a miasma of sleaze.
"One reporter prints what someone told him," S. Robert Lichter, who directs the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington.
"Then everyone else reports that he printed it. The fact that a rumor exists becomes a story in itself. It's all rumors, all the time."
Sleep-deprived journalists say they are doing their best with a seamy, slippery story and lawyerly White House denials. Serious, careful reporters for reputable news organizations resent being lumped together with Internet gossip-mongers and the New York Post (typical headline: "Monica's Hail to the Cheat: Bill Had Harem").
But journalists, and not just their numerous critics, express frustration that the reporting so far has been long on titillation and short on information. They acknowledge that the Lewinsky story has posed extraordinary challenges.
"I've never seen so many journalistic ethics issues being forced to a decision so fast," said Doyle McManus, chief of the Los Angeles Times' Washington bureau, where 23 reporters were pursuing the scandal full speed last week. "The decisions you normally might wrestle with for three days have to be made in 10 minutes."
Today, as a typhoon of media coverage, batters the Clinton White House, it is worth pausing to ask: What do we know? And how do we know it?
The case against the president, after all, is built on tiny microcassette tapes from the answering machine of Linda R. Tripp, the 48-year-old colleague and confessor of 24-year-old Lewinsky.
But of all the news organizations that would love to listen to the tapes, only Newsweek magazine claims to have done so. And Newsweek says its reporter, Michael Isikoff, has listened to only 90 minutes of the reported 20-plus hours of taped conversations of Lewinsky and Tripp.
The magazine has published a fraction of those 90 minutes. When other news organizations refer to other parts of the tapes, the information usually is attributed to "a source familiar with the tapes."
Such information may be accurate, but only if: the source actually listened to the tapes or read transcripts; the source accurately conveyed what was on the tapes; and Lewinsky (or Tripp) was speaking truthfully on the tapes, and not with sarcasm or hyperbole.
That's a lot of ifs, says Lee Wilkins, who teaches media ethics at the University of Missouri journalism school. "Is this real information, or is this just two people gossiping?" she asked. "How do we know?"
Consider the reports that Lewinsky says on the tapes that the president gave her a dress, and that the dress, or another dress, was stained with proof of a sexual liaison with the president.
This undignified allegation first surfaced in Matthew Drudge's Internet gossip column, which had first reported the Lewinsky affair. On NBC's "Today" show Jan. 22, host Matt Lauer cross-examined Drudge.
Lauer: "You say Monica Lewinsky has a piece of clothing that might have the president's semen on it? What evidence do you have of that?"
Drudge: "She has bragged this to Mrs. Tripp, who has told this to investigators, it's my understanding. And currently the independent counsel's office is furious with me for letting this go."
Lauer: "But you don't have any confirmation of that?"
Drudge: "Not outside of what I've just heard, but I don't think anybody does at this point."
Drudge's nose-thumbing at journalistic standards has earned him the contempt of mainstream reporters. But on the question of the dirty dress, the news establishment wound up following in his footsteps.
A telltale dress?