Restless viewers over NBC restless leg "story"

NBC News anchor Brian Williams delivered an awkward and unusual story lead-in last Wednesday, one which has touched off a firestorm of criticism of him even on his own blog.

Williams said, on the air: “If you watch this newscast with any frequency, then you’ve seen it – this ad playing behind me here on the screen – for a medication for something called restless leg syndrome. A lot of us had frankly never heard of the condition but we figured people must suffer terribly from it for there to be a medication to treat it. And so,motivated by a commercial by one of our own sponsors, we asked NBC News correspondent Josh Mankiewicz to do some checking. ”

Mankiewicz’s story begins: “They show you the problem, and the solution. The syndrome, known commonly as RLS, affects millions and has been known to some for at least 60 years. But until recently, most people — even many physicians — had never heard of it. The drug company GlaxoSmithKline changed that.â€?

The story then quoted a doctor who said: “I’m not generally a big fan of direct-to-consumer TV ads. However, for this particular disorder, I think they’ve done a great service by spending most of the time identifying the problem.” (You can read Williams’ blog later to see what some viewers dug up about this “expert” source.)

The story went on to brag about Glaxo’s earnings from the drugs. And cited a single patient who said the drug “worked like a charm.â€?

The NBC hype didn’t end there. Brian Williams went on his blog to brag about the story.

But viewers went to the blog as well, many of them to criticize NBC and Williams, saying things like:

You said “We commissioned last night’s story….”
And with whom did you commission that biased story?
(GlaxoSmithKline – the maker of the restless leg drug in the story)? I thought NBC was trying to cut commercials so we get more news. Does this integraded (sic) ad then count as news or advertising.â€?


“This is only one of numerous examples of drug companies, trying to invent a disease or malady, or whatever, just to sell prescription drugs.â€?


“it seemed to me the majority of writers were upset (as was I) about the blatant commercial you ran for for an advertiserâ€?


“Give anything a name, initials and a drug to “cure” it and you’ll become a millionaire. Goes to show how gullible we have become in this country. And think about it, Brian, you’re part of the problem/solution?â€?


“This time you’ve really crossed the fine line between journalism and advertising, and you owe your viewers an explanation and an apology.â€?

Had NBC, Williams or Mankiewicz done even a little research, they would have found, free on the web, an article entitled, “Giving Legs to Restless Legs: A Case Study of How the Media Helps Make People Sick.â€? Which is just what NBC did with this egregious example of disease-mongering. I am at least comforted that an intelligent viewing audience is starting to catch on to such examples of shoddy journalism.

You might also like

Comments (10)

Please note, comments are no longer published through this website. All previously made comments are still archived and available for viewing through select posts.


February 5, 2007 at 1:57 pm

Can it be that a network that reaches tens of millions of people does not have a producer who, when given an assignment, knows how to get both sides of a story? No hyped up Rx industry marketing campaign has gotten more critical attention than restless legs syndrome. Two minutes on the internet or (heaven forbid) on PubMed would turn up evidence of the counter-marketing campaign by these critics. That a few alert readers found Brian Williams’ blog to complain shouldn’t surprise us. But what about all those coach potatoes with tingling legs? Do you think they’ll be reading his blog?

R.L. Sufferer

February 12, 2007 at 2:33 pm

Laugh away at polio victims while you are at it, even though in your ignorance you probably have never encountered a polio victim in your sheltered life. The U.S. government recognizes restless leg as a serious disorder:
so why don’t you?


February 13, 2007 at 10:20 am

I am a third generation RLS sufferer. My grandmother, mother and aunt, and all 3 of my siblings join me in trying to deal with legs that tingle, ache, cramp and generally make our lives miserable. There are those for whom this only occurs during the day, which makes doing things like going to a play or movie next to impossible, much less sitting on an airplane or going for a long trip in the car. Without any medication, the ONLY way to try to deal with the agony is to get up and walk, and walk, and then walk some more. We daytimers are the FORTUNATE ones – those for whom the RLS surfaces once they’ve gone to bed suffer from severe sleep deprivation. When the RLS kicks into full gear once one has laid down is the end of any hope of sleep.
When my mom had a knee replaced last spring, I watched in horror as the other leg danced all over the bed after she’d come out of the recovery room. She was in total agony, as there was no way to escape; she couldn’t even think about getting out of bed to walk the RLS off.
Trying to describe RLS is like a blind person describing an elephant – VERY difficult. When the Glaxo ads first ran on TV, all of my friends commented on it after they’d seen it.
RLS is actually one of the most common illnesses today. It is also the least-understood, but in the past decade there has finally been SOME progress in finding help for those who suffer from/with it. Research is finding that there are a number of commonalities between RLS and Parkinson’s, which is why so many PD meds are finding their way into the medicine cabinets of RLS patients. I know this – my husband has PD, and we have both taken Mirapex. Interestingly, Mirapex was recently approved by the FDA for treatment of RLS. Requip, which was developed specifically for RLS has been approved for treatment of PD.
I really wish the media would speak to some neurologists and get their facts straight. In addition, talk to people who have RLS – my family for instance – and find out just how debilitating it is. Meanwhile, I thank Glaxo for trying to put a face to this hideous illness.

The Publisher

February 13, 2007 at 11:37 am

Nothing in my original post was meant to denigrate the true problem of restless leg syndrome. If you review what was posted, it was only meant to comment on the NBC news coverage, to point out that some observers on the NBC blog had done their homework to point out serious flaws in that reporting, and to refer readers to a scholarly review of the advertising and news coverage of the drug in question.


February 13, 2007 at 11:56 am

I’ve had RLS for years, but only recently got to the right neurologist for a formal diagnosis. Sure, the drug works. I take it. It works. But I can see the problem with NBC’s “story.” Seems obvious to me.
An aside: I went to a hospital yesterday for a stress test and commented on the ballpoint pen a technician was using. I asked her what pharmaceutical company the pen came from. Oh, we’re not allowed to have those around here anymore, she kindly replied. Hey, it’s about time some doctors stood up and said enough is enough.