It is interesting that Adolf Hitler was closer to his mistress, Eva Braun, than we had thought. It is interesting that he called her often, that he felt pity for her, that his sex life with her was robust and that he worried about her when he left her alone. It is interesting, but is it true?

The answer, according to the German government, is no. Having examined the purported Hitler diaries, government experts concluded that the paper and ink used were manufactured after the war. That makes the diaries forgeries and does nothing to disprove the theory of the late P.T. Barnum that there is a sucker born every minute. This particular minute was crowded with some of the Western World's more prestigious publications and scholars.

In fact, Hitler's warmer-than-previously-believed relationship was detailed in Germany's Stern magazine, The London Sunday Times and, after a fashion, Time and Newsweek. It was in Newsweek that I read the touching account of Hitler's concern for his mistress:

"Hitler turns tender and sentimental when he writes about Eva Braun . . . . 'Eva had to suffer a lot,' he writes in 1938. 'According to the doctors, it was only a false pregnancy, but she is convinced that it was miscarriage. Just now . . . when this woman really needs me, I have to leave her alone so much.' "

You will notice that not a single "alleged" is used by Newsweek, but it is hard to blame the publication. By the time it was rushed into print, the diaries had been "authenticated" by scholars galore, all of them working, in the manner of negligence lawyers, for a fee, and some of them, Hugh Trevor- Roper, for instance, already in the pay of the publications involved. It is not too much to say that what tainted the diary story from the beginning was not gullibility, but greed. Reportorial and scholarly skepticism took an early powder. Good old money threw everyone off the track.

The culprit here is what is called "checkbook journalism," the term used when a publication goes out and buys a story. It is what got Time Inc. in trouble over Clifford Irving's fraudulent Howard Hughes diaries and it tripped up The New York Times when it bought the rights to serialize H.R. Haldeman's book, forgetting (as The Washington Post proved by printing it first) that while you can buy news, you can't own it. It is also, in the end, what tripped up Trevor-Roper, who initially said he would stake his reputation on the authenticity of the Hitler diaries and now, alas, ends his career in a vaudevillian fashion--a man going out on a banana peel.

In the case of the Hitler diaries, some publications got out of the business of reporting the news and into the business of merchandising it. Starting with Stern, the franchiser, these publications became the business partners of whomever it was who said he had found the diaries--a person, it turns out, unknown to almost everyone involved and now, presumably, on the lam. In an effort to protect their own financial interests, these publications even withheld the news for a time that Hitler not only had kept a diary, but that it had been found.

With vast amounts of money at stake (Newsweek was asked to pony up $3 million), the publications lost their objectivity. They became part of the story. It became impossible for those who bought the diaries--or even for those, like Newsweek, those that almost bought them and then reconsidered--to write the story the way it should have been written. They had to decide on the authenticity of the diaries, a task that was, really, none of their business. Their business was just to cover the story--to maintain that all-important distance from which, you hope, you can see the forest from the trees.

Now the lesson has to be learned once again. The public would have been better served if the publications involved had just reported the news--the discovery of the diaries, their merchandising and the allegations that they were a fraud--rather than trying to either sell or buy them. As sometimes happens when the checkbook is substituted for the notebook, the check was good--but the story bounced.