LOS ANGELES — THREE days after a televised police chase ended in the arrest of football hero and murder suspect O. J. Simpson, Los Angelenos are trying to sort out some meaning from its city-wide trauma.
Mr. Simpson, who has been charged with killing his ex-wife and her friend, was due for court arraignment today in what could become a well-publicized trial. But this Hall of Famer has quickly become the object of intense scrutiny by sociologists, media gurus, and others focusing on such questions as Simpson's past record of beating his wife, possible lenient treatment by police of a prominent person, and the spectacle of fans cheering him during the bizarre chase across L.A. highways on Friday.
The chase so captivated America's largest urban center that routine life almost screeched to a halt during the climactic moments.
On the Santa Monica movie set for the filming of ``Stuart Smalley,'' cast, crew, and extras had gathered around a four-inch color TV, riveted to live images of the cream-colored Ford Bronco pursued by helicopters and police cars. The images flickered from each of nine local stations while the ``motorcade'' passed down a freeway just two miles away.
``Hey, c'mon people, we have a movie to film, here,'' barked one assistant director.
Just miles in the other direction, a crush of media and onlookers swarmed the Brentwood residences of Simpson and his slain wife, chanting, ``The Juice is loose,'' ``Free O.J.,'' and ``Save the Juice.''
``I was just thinking, `what else can happen in L.A.?' '' says Michael Walker, a free-lance writer who moved here in 1991 in time for the Rodney King riots, last year's fires and mudslides, and this year's Jan. 17 earthquake. ``I turn on the TV and it's helicopters again ... this time chasing a national sports hero.''
In one of five front-page stories on the Simpson episode in the next day's Los Angeles Times, commentator Howard Rosenberg, usually a critic of overwrought TV crime coverage, wrote: ``If ever there were an example of television being historic as well as instantaneous, this was it.''
Others saw the scene as entertainment. ``It was a perfectly produced Hollywood action picture except that it was happening live and nobody knew the ending,'' says Brian Stonehill, a professor of media literacy at Pomona College.
With all the elements of a Shakespeare drama - wife-beating, murder, a hero of mythic stature, a mystery, a chase, a loyal friend - the pursuit ``amounted to a catharsis of unprecedented proportions [because] it unfolded theatrically, cinematically, but was totally real,'' he says.
``The reality is that famous people sell, and famous people falling off their pedestal sell better than anything else,'' says Ken Waters, a professor of journalism specializing in ethics at Pepperdine University in Malibu.
Because the coverage unfolded live, Mr. Waters says, the O.J. Simpson story highlighted what television does best - bringing dramatic, moving pictures of events directly into homes instantaneously so that viewers can witness real events in real time. But the case also shows TV at its worst.
``More so than any other time, you have high-paid anchors with limited backgrounds in legal and police matters speculating aloud to fill air time,'' he says. Some anchors speculated that Simpson might be en route to Brazil or Libya by plane. Others said he might be headed for the home of his slain wife to commit suicide or that he might already have committed suicide.
Such speculation might have induced viewers to go to various locales, which made it not only irresponsible, but dangerous, Waters says. Beyond that, the intense coverage may have actually influenced the story's outcome.
Because Simpson's every move was under the media microscope, his actions may have come under so much pressure that it was impossible to behave normally, according to David Levy, a social psychologist at Pepperdine. He adds that ``celebrity status does breed an illusion of invulnerability [in that] you are treated like you are bigger than life. So when a fall comes, it is harder to cope with.''
One other danger of such a wide TV audience is the increased temptation by the various players to use the media for personal gain and public relations purposes. The Los Angeles Police Department, for instance, has won high marks for its highly articulate news conferences - a way of making up for its tarnished national image after the Rodney King affair.