I took a walk to Central Park on Monday, and on the way, I noticed a toddler being wheeled in a stroller, wearing what looked like a cotton, homemade mask. The mask was pink with white flowers, and fit the tiny face well.

The child was peacefully asleep, lulled by the motion and the spring breezes.

Here’s what I didn’t do: Pull out my phone and call 911 to report a blatant case of child abuse. But, if you take Fox News host Tucker Carlson seriously — which, like all sentient beings, I certainly do not — that’s what was called for.

It was later that same day that Carlson launched into his latest piece of performative nonsense on his prime-time show, inveighing against the supposed tyranny of mask-wearing.

Requiring children to wear masks outside should be illegal, he insisted, and must be fought against.

“Your response when you see children wearing masks as they play should be no different from your response to seeing someone beat a kid in Walmart,” Carlson said on his Monday show. “Call the police immediately, contact child protective services. Keep calling until someone arrives.” He went on: “What you’re looking at is abuse, it’s child abuse and you are morally obligated to attempt to prevent it.”

Carlson, who brands himself as someone deeply invested in individual liberties, nonetheless urged his viewers Monday to confront strangers wearing masks outdoors and request they bare their faces by telling them, “Your mask is making me uncomfortable.”

Carlson, we understand, is performing for his audience. His trademark petulant outrage is designed to get attention — and ratings.

It’s a canny-enough calculation. As Fox News struggles to figure out its post-election approach to the world, Carlson has become its most dependable resource. Another prime-time host, Sean Hannity, seems completely dismissible now that his alter ego, the former president, has left center stage, and the rest of the network’s coverage and commentary seems to be trying to find its footing in the new political reality. (The weeks-long obsession with the supposed “cancellation” of Dr. Seuss books comes to mind.)

There have been stumbles.

Americans need to “say goodbye to your burgers if you want to sign up to the Biden climate agenda,” host John Roberts said Friday as a graphic underlined a point that would prove to be utterly false: “Biden’s climate requirements” are to “cut 90% of red meat from diet, max 4 lbs per year, one burger per month.”

In fact, Biden has no plan whatsoever to restrict the consumption of red meat. So, in a rare Fox News correction, Roberts admitted on air on Monday that his show got it wrong.

Carlson, though, delivers for Fox News, night after unhinged night. And he seems to have no limits.

Some of it may be harmless. The mask screed, though, isn’t.

The rapid spread of covid-19 in the United States began in early 2020. A lot has changed in our day-to-day lives since then, including the use of face masks. (Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

Megan Ranney, associate professor of emergency medicine and public health at Brown University, made the case for continued mask-wearing in an article on NBC News’s digital site this month. “The pandemic has unequivocally proven the public health value of masks,” she wrote, while admitting that, like others, she was wrong early last year when she said that public mask-wearing wasn’t necessary.

There are legitimate questions now about the continued value of wearing masks outdoors, but what’s happening on Carlson’s show isn’t any sort of reasoned discussion about that.

“It’s part of a full-on, aggressive assault against science and scientists” on Fox News and other right-wing media outlets, said Peter Hotez, author of “Preventing the Next Pandemic” and dean of Baylor College of Medicine’s School of Tropical Medicine. He has made a point of being interviewed by those outlets when asked — but the invitations from Newsmax and Fox have tailed off in recent weeks, and host Laura Ingraham went after him by name recently.

There are mixed messages, though. Fox News has aired public service announcements promoting preventive behavior, including mask-wearing, while its stars dish out the opposite advice.

Hotez told me that Carlson’s mask screed on Monday fits right in with the “anti-vaccine tirades and rants” he’s increasingly seeing on Fox. There’s clear proof of the dangers in several recent polls, he said, that show significant percentages of people, particularly the Republicans who are Fox’s core audience, will refuse vaccines.

“That’s tens of millions of Americans — and we need them,” Hotez said, if the United States is going to achieve widespread immunity and defeat the pandemic for good.

If Carlson were really talking about whether it’s necessary for tiny tots in strollers to be wearing masks outdoors, it would be one thing. He might even have a point worth discussing.

But his screeds are nothing but outrage-mongering that — in the aggregate, and writ large — is going to cost lives.

If the past is any indication, it’s a lost cause to hope that Fox will rein in Carlson. He’s doing exactly what the Murdoch ownership wants: Juicing ratings, and giving Fox a reason for existing in the post-Trump era.

These days, the only question is how low he’ll go.

READ MORE by Margaret Sullivan:

For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan