It's not that Shep Smith has suddenly had a liberal change of heart. The Fox News Channel anchor was shouting about his ideological independence back in February. It's that Smith seems to have become more vigorous and visible lately about setting himself apart from conservative pundits like Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly. His Tuesday smackdown of a comedian who said the media was "in the tank" for Barack Obama followed recent defenses of the Democratic president-elect to Ralph Nader and Joe The Plumber, plus cutesy little digs at Hannity and O'Reilly. It's all after the jump.

Smith's line is that he's just a news reporter standing up for objective truth, and that this doesn't put him at odds with orthodox conservative pundits like Hannity. "I know what I do, I do the news," Smith told O'Reilly.

That's often true! But he's also sometimes a bit of a pundit, albeit in a fun, appropriate and satisfying way. The newsman wasn't above letting some contempt show through, for example, when he scolded Nader for using the term "Uncle Tom" in reference to Obama. A disgruntled musing on Joe the Plumber was opinionated enough to close out an editorial at the Times (Fox's conservative peanut gallery must have loved that).

And as Smith bares his teeth like that more often, and as the right-wing punditocracy continues to implode, as reports surface that his right-wing boss Roger Ailes is on Rupert Murdoch's bad side, viewers are naturally going to wonder if Shep Smith is an harbinger of bigger things to come at Fox News. Or at least of more entertaining things.

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